Breakthrough is directed by Roxann Dawson. The film stars Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace, Mike Colter, Marcel Ruiz, Sam Trammel, and Dennis Haysbert. It’s based on The Impossible, a book by Joyce Smith.
John Smith is a boy living in Missouri with his adoptive parents. Now in his teens, he’s entering an awkward phase, clashing with parents, authority figures, and classmates alike, despite being charismatic and liked by many of his peers. During a school holiday, he and his friends fall through ice, and while his friends are quickly rescued, John is stuck under the freezing waters for several minutes, requiring treatment at a specialized hospital. John’s mother Joyce prays for her son as he’s on death’s door, hoping to see him recover despite the realistic diagnoses of several of the area’s top doctors.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the target demographic for faith-based films, though a few in recent years have at least somewhat succeeded in winning me over; as a film critic, you’ve got to be willing to review movies of all varieties and give them a chance. The true story of John Smith’s survival following a fall through ice is inspirational and a true miracle…
…but it fails as a film. In every conceivable way.
Breakthrough manipulates its audience though heart-wrenching manufactured drama, mixed messages, a complete disrespect for the medical community, a lack of subtlety, unnecessary exposition-style dialogue, unsympathetic characters, an overlong running time packed with tertiary characters and subplots, and an over-the-top lead performance that borderlines on parody. The religious types who go to church every Sunday and believe in the power of prayer over modern medical research and science will eat this up (there were many church/Bible study groups in my screening, tearing up and cheering throughout), but general audiences will see it for the cinematic schlock it really is.
Where does one begin to describe Breakthrough? Probably the only thing I can give the film credit for is its casting, which includes the likes of Topher Grace (That 70s Show, Spider-Man 3) and Mike Colter (Luke Cage) with the film criminally underusing the latter. Grace’s performance may be the one saving grace (pardon the bad pun) in a film populated with no shortage of cinematic sins.
Chrissy Metz portrays Joyce Smith, John’s adoptive mother. Christian audiences will likely see her portrayal as a woman who lets her faith in God take control as she prays against all odds for a son who may never recover. I saw an annoying, obnoxious character who treats everyone around her poorly and has no sense of reality whatsoever. Throughout the film she is disrespectful to medical professionals (who are only doing their job!), her own husband, her pastor, and everyone around her. She is whiny and, ironically, unsympathetic due to her very nature. Films about a parent risking losing a child are nothing new, yet there are fictional stories which are more believable than this one. The success of a film largely hinges on its lead, and the over-the-top performance by Chrissy Metz makes Breakthrough difficult to get through.
If only that was the movie’s only flaw…
Marcel Ruiz portrays victim John Smith, and while this young actor is certainly charismatic and has potential, it doesn’t help that the movie portrays him as a rude punk who doesn’t care about his schoolwork and is disrespectful everywhere he goes prior to the accident. We see him deliberately skip doing his homework, slacking off with friends, defying authority figures, fighting with fellow basketball team members, and being outright disrespectful to his parents. If the purpose of the film was to create someone sympathetic we wanted to see bounce back from his near-death experience, it failed outright.
The movie doesn’t know when to end or stop with drama which is force-fed down our throats with blatant exposition-style dialogue that knows no notion of subtlety whatsoever. We see a random flashback to John as a little boy, asking him why his natural parents didn't want him, all teary-eyed. Can you get any more blatant? Furthermore, the writing feels like it was penned by a fourth grader. Characters speak in ridiculous, common-sense phrases, and even those who don’t know how to act overact. Just when one dramatic plot and conflict doesn’t seem like enough, we continue to be bombarded with them. The pacing is sluggish, and many subplots/side characters are shafted, with Mike Colter’s character being the biggest wasted opportunity, relegating him to a mere few scenes. Even after the miracle comeback we all know is coming, the movie keeps piling on more and more unnecessary drama. When does it end? Thankfully, it eventually does, but not soon enough.
The single biggest weakness of Breakthrough is in the disrespectful way it portrays the medical community. In one of the film’s more cringe-inducing scenes, Joyce berates a doctor portrayed by Dennis Haysbert (the guy from all those Allstate insurance commercials) for conveying negative but accurate information. Throughout the film she gets mad at anyone on the medical team who says anything negative. No matter how accurate it is (does she not realize it’s the job of medical professionals to convey honest news, no matter how devastating it may be?) After the berating, and Joyce telling the doctor he’s the best, he decides to go back in and save the son’s life. Yes, the movie is this blatant and ridiculous, and the fact that professional doctors, who are responsible for far more lives saved than miracles like the ones seen here, is an insult to the entire medical profession.
Breakthrough is the worst movie of 2019 so far. By far. Heavily Christian audiences will eat up its manufactured drama and paint-by-numbers approach to faith-based cinema, but more traditional critics and audiences will see the movie for what it is. Skip it. There are far better faith-based films.
Rating: Zero stars.
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