There’s not much that’s subtle about the first image of Roxann Dawson’s “Breakthrough,” which opens with a shot of one of the film’s central characters peacefully sinking through a large body of water, arms outstretched, approximating Jesus so closely that the film may as well be called “Resurrection.” But Dawson, a former actress with a substantial body of television directing and producing gigs under her belt, eschews further overt imagery for a modern story of faith designed to appeal to the devout and the secular alike.
While the film arrives in theaters stamped with the Walt Disney Pictures logo, it’s also one of the last productions to come out of the forward-thinking Fox 2000 label, pre-studio merger. It’s a strange pick for an imprint best known for films like “Life of Pi” and “Hidden Figures” — “Breakthrough” is an unabashedly faith-based film that relies more on emotion rather than substance to propel it forward. And despite its valiant attempts to reach out to all kinds of audiences, much of “Breakthrough” tests how much audiences are willing to believe of a scenario that, though based on a true story, seems too undercooked for any kind of movie treatment.
That Jesus kid? That’s John Smith (Marcel Ruiz), and when he’s not having strange dreams about bodies of water and Christ-like contortions, he’s a regular teen, albeit one who is partially defined by his uneasy relationship with his faith and family. That tension is delivered via a particularly off-kilter opening scene, in which the young basketball star jams out to Bruno Mars’ upbeat “Uptown Funk” (with each occurrence of “hot damn” in the lyrics awkwardly snipped out to meet the expectations of this faith-based film) while his loving and overly attentive mother Joyce (Chrissy Metz) attempts to break through his teenage fog.
John’s avoidance of his mother seems relatable enough: He’s a cool youngster who has zero time for his family, preferring to spend time with his best pals (both named Josh), crushing on a local girl, and dealing with a vicious bully. And the overbearing Joyce is certainly too involved in her son’s life, much as he resists her intrusions. But while John and Joyce’s relationship initially looks as if it’s rooted in everyday issues, Grant Nieporte’s script eventually reaches the bigger problem: John was adopted as a baby, and he’s never quite gotten over the sense of rejection he felt from his birth mother.
For Joyce, a forceful and godly woman, that’s just one more thing to pray on. But even that isn’t going so well, as she’s recently been forced to contend with a hip new pastor (Topher Grace) who insists that everyone just calls him Jason and act as if it’s normal for Sunday sermons to be delivered in rolled-up light-wash denim jeans. He is, of course, “from California,” and Joyce can’t stand him.
Soon, however, she’s going to need him, as John and the Joshs spend a wintry morning playing on a local Missouri lake, when it suddenly cracks and swallows the trio up. Only John, who attempts to help one of his pals and is sent sinking even further into the icy lake, doesn’t make it out within the crucial first few minutes, kicking off a rescue mission that seems doomed to turn into one dedicated to recovery. That’s when the movie’s pro-faith message kicks into high gear: When a non-believing firefighter named Tommy (Mike Colter) goes looking for John, he hears a voice that tells him to examine another spot one more time, the exact spot where John’s frozen body just happens to be floating.
Though it draws on a real rescue mission, there’s plenty in “Breakthrough” that all but begs for a suspension of disbelief: when John suddenly starts breathing after nearly an hour without a pulse, it’s a miracle; and when he lives through his first night, it’s simply unprecedented. Faced with an honest assessment from staid Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert), Joyce and her husband Brian (Josh Lucas, tasked with a role that relegates him to the background) can’t accept that their beloved son will likely not live for long, and if he does, it will be in a state of “catastrophic” brain damage.
What Joyce does to save her son will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a faith-based film: She prays on it. A lot. She prays hard enough to get him to breathe again, and enough to help him live through the night, and the next one, and the one after that. She prays enough that even call-me-Jason suddenly seems like a serviceable enough friend and pastor. She prays so hard that John’s entire school turns out to sing to him via an incredibly well-produced outdoor jam session. She prays so deeply that even Metz’s bizarrely rude performance suddenly seems like a mother just doing her best. She prays enough to save him.
At least, that’s the lesson imparted from the true story of the Smiths’ and the Joyce-penned book that inspired the film, but through an often hammy haze of God-talk and some remarkably chintzy setpieces (the accident itself looks as it if was filmed in someone’s backyard), there’s also a fortifying message for nonbelievers like Tommy. Maybe it was the prayers that saved John, or maybe it was the overwhelming goodwill of his community, his mother’s refusal to leave his side, or the basic decency of a whole slew of professionals doing their jobs and doing them well. From the first responders to the nurses, all the way up to Pastor Jason, “Breakthrough” breaks through its own genre-specific worldview to offer something that’s in just as short supply as steadfast faith: nice people doing good work.
That’s something that can appeal to everyone, and while it’s compelling to see such an obviously faith-based story reaching across the divide to secular moviegoers, it doesn’t always work in the film’s favor. Even the film’s brief forays into exploring the deeper effects of John’s supposed miracle — first depicted during a truly odd exchange with a beloved teacher who asks the shellshocked kid to explain why he lived and her husband died from his own recent accident — only quickly move into richer territory. There are bigger questions to ask here, but when it’s easier to roll out some simple images and wrapped-up answers, “Breakthrough” breaks down, happy to just explain away everything good as a divine act that no one could possibly control. Movies, however, require a bit more than just faith.
Disney and Fox will release “Breakthrough” in theaters on Wednesday, April 17.