Breakthrough: Glimmer of Hope, by Tyler Smith

When writing about a Christian film, it’s tempting to simply look at the film’s many faults and dismiss it out of hand. And while this may be a perfectly legitimate approach, it fails to acknowledge faith-based film not only as its own genre, but as one that’s still evolving. When reviewing any genre film – be it a western, noir, or sci fi – one can’t go in with traditional expectations. After all, it would be unfair to hold the latest zombie film to the same narrative standard as, say, Manchester by the Sea. So, when discussing Roxann Dawson’s Breakthrough, I’m less inclined to emphasize the various ways that it falls short of traditional dramatic expectations and more apt to point out the general improvements that the film represents in the Christian film genre.

Based on the true story of a family in crisis, Breakthrough is all about the power of prayer and miracles. A teenage boy named John (Marcel Ruiz) falls into a frozen lake and goes without any oxygen for almost twenty minutes before being rescued. As he lay unconscious at the hospital, clinging to his last shred of life, his mother, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), and father, Brian (Josh Lucas), pray and ponder how God could allow such a thing to happen. They are joined by their local pastor, Jason (Topher Grace), and a number of well-wishers in the community.

This being a Christian film, it goes without saying that the boy will wake up, with no long-lasting damage. The faith-based film industry is not in the habit of telling stories that end in tragedy. In fact, at this point, the “miraculous recovery of an injured child” storyline is practically a subgenre in itself, with films like Heaven is for Real and Miracles from Heaven being notable examples. And, like those films, Breakthrough operates at a slightly higher level than the usual faith-based fare.

Though the film is certainly a step in the right direction, it is still not particularly dynamic. Many filmmaking elements – so crucial in elevating a story – are merely functional here. The music is unmemorable, meant only to affirm the emotions the audience is already feeling. The cinematography is flat and uninspired, as though the camera were merely a way to capture the story and not enhance it. And while there are definite improvements to be found in this script, it still falls into many of the same narrative traps that past films like Fireproof and God’s Not Dead did before, attempting to broaden the story to incorporate several peripheral characters, but then never really knowing what to do with them.

While it retains the frustratingly-broad story beats and character types, where Breakthrough really distinguishes itself is in the acting. As Joyce, Chrissy Metz creates a character that feels lived-in. Having been raised in the church myself, I feel like I’ve met people like Joyce, who genuinely attempts to encourage and embolden others while never quite hiding her judgment and mistrust. Metz’s Joyce is an imperfect person whose pride often gets in the way of emotional connection with other people, even her own husband. This is a huge step forward in Christian film, which too often treats its protagonists as infallible.

The rest of the cast is solid, as well. Josh Lucas brings a fragile authenticity to his role as a man whose faith is solid as long as things are going well, but begins to falter when the chips are down. And few people can balance smarm and sincerity quite as well as Topher Grace. Rounding out the cast are Mike Colter as John’s rescuer and Dennis Haysbert as a cautious medical expert, both of whom lend solid support to the leads. And young Marcel Ruiz wisely plays John as confused and conflicted, even at a time when everybody else thinks that the only thing he should be feeling is gratitude.

And it is in John’s wary attitude about his own miraculous healing that I am most encouraged. Christian films, historically, aren’t known for their nuance. These are movies made by Christians for Christians. As such, thematic corners are cut and the proceedings take on a decidedly complacent air, with the directors – possibly unconsciously – relying both on their audience’s understanding and forgiveness. With a target demo so indulgent, the temptation to pander has proven itself to be more than many directors can resist. Soon enough, stories about miraculous happenings are fully embraced, without ever really questioning the larger implications. And while Breakthrough isn’t necessarily about the more complicated elements of faith – such as wondering why God saves one person and not another – the film’s acknowledgement that they exist is something that I’m unaccustomed to seeing in Christian film. Here’s hoping that future faith-based films show a willingness to take up Breakthrough’s baton and run a little further with it.

In the end, Breakthrough will likely only appeal to Christian audiences. This isn’t automatically a bad thing. Every audience deserves to be served, especially if that service involves thematic elements that can alternately inspire and challenge it. As much as we critics might condemn films like this for “preaching to the choir”, we seem to ignore the fact that even the most entrenched choir can use a good sermon now and again. And while that sermon may be eye-rollingly obvious more often than it should, Breakthrough gives me a glimmer of hope that, slowly but surely, it’s getting better.

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