By: Steve Pulaski
Breakthrough tells the remarkable story of John Smith (Marcel Ruiz, Netflix's One Day at a Time), a 14-year-old boy who fell through the icy surface of Lake St. Louis and spent several days in a coma. This was after he was underwater for 15 minutes. This is another one of those "based on a true story" films where I and many others would criticize the plausibility of the storyline had the event in question not really taken place. It's difficult to fault Breakthrough for mining the tense emotions and vulnerability from all parties during such a trying time, and this is a thoroughly pleasant, uplifting weeper in spite of itself.
John is painted as just your average teenager. He's the marquee player on his high school basketball team, has a fun group of friends, and often appears at odds with his parents, who adopted him in Guatemala while on a mission trip. His adoptive mother, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), is greatly bothered by her son's standoffish demeanor towards her, while her husband, Brian (Josh Lucas), rationalizes his son's behavior as typical for a teenager. Joyce is also a devout Christian, and traditionalist in her beliefs insofar that she finds her "California cool" Pastor Jason (Topher Grace) offputting with his haircut and distancing from Christian hymns in church in favor of more pop/hip-hop in the pews. Yet all of these grievances subside when John and his buddies goofing around on a frozen lake causes them to fall through the ice, with John suffering the scariest bout with death.
After the fact, John is rescued by a first responder (Mike Colter) and quickly transported to an area hospital where numerous attempts at CPR and shock treatment appear futile. Joyce storms in, delivers a hysterical plea to her Lord and Savior, asking for Him to step in and save her son. Miraculously, because there is no other word to describe it, John suddenly has a pulse. He is then transferred to Dr. Garrett, played by Dennis Haysbert (famous for the Allstate commercials — I guess you could say John is in good hands), a drowning expert, who informs Joyce and Brian that it is almost unthinkable for John to come out of a coma without serious neurological issues, let alone survive. "You don't know my son," Joyce tells Dr. Garrett. The remainder of the movie is a series of bedside talks involving Joyce, Brian, her pastor, and John's many friends who come to support their fallen classmate as he attempts to beat the odds and make a full recovery.
By the very virtue of this film existing, you know how the story will end, and that's okay. Many a great movie was made from a story to which everyone knew the outcome, for the journey and the makeup of the picture is of the utmost importance.Breakthrough is unapologetically mawkish and sentimental to a fault. It's as tough as a $6 steak to try and cut through this film and see past its flagrant emotions and emotionally manipulative devices in order to see it for something larger. Thankfully, Chrissy Metz is a warm protagonist, even when her character is borderline delusional with faith, and John is a likable soul to root for, rough edges and all.
The problems with the film stem from where I expected them to stem. For one, writer Grant Nieporte (Seven Pounds) villainizes any character, be them a doctor or an acquaintance of John, who dare suggest that the boy might not make it through. Any time a shadow of doubt is cast on the terrible situation at hand, Joyce shoots down their perceived pessimism as a personal insult to her and her son. Like most faith-based films that shun nonbelievers as cruel individuals ostensibly with no moral compass nor compassion, Breakthrough shuns any kind of skepticism for John's condition as an affront to hope. It also doesn't help that the Nieporte refuses to make an honest attempt to ask the tough question: why John? Towards the end of the film, John's teacher informs him that she lost her husband and questions him why he was so lucky only to walk it back as an out-of-line statement. Maybe so, in context, but that doesn't invalidate the notion the film raises. Did other families with equally or even lesser tragedies that turned fatal just not pray hard enough nor shoot down the burden of doubt when it entered the room?
No matter how simple Breakthrough wants to make its story, or chalk up John's recovery as a miracle and nothing more, these are questions that ultimately arise when you have a film that makes it look like the only thing that pulled the 14-year-old through a harrowing brush with death was how loudly his mother and countless others prayed for his recovery. It sidesteps the difficult questions, as if exhausting all its energy and tears on the event at hand. Once those tears are brushed away and those hugs delivered en masse, it should be time to address such questions.
Breakthrough, however, isn't as toxic as other films of its genre. The first major release from Unanimous Media, a company kickstarted by NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who, too, serves as an executive producer, the film is comfort food that, through flaws and all, gets a modest nod of approval. It doesn't undermine the plight of John nor the way ordinarily impressionable teenagers come together to fight and love one of their own when times are tough. That's one thing I've long admired, having seen the deaths of friends and classmates over the years. All grudges and feelings of being removed from a person suddenly evaporate in times of duress, and Breakthrough articulates that special bond in a warming manner, if with a few too many overbearing songs and montages.