In January 2015 a 14-year-old boy called John Smith was playing with two friends on a frozen lake in Missouri when the ice broke and he fell through, hence the title of the film. The term has a secondary religious reverberation because he underwent a kind of spiritual ‘breakthrough’ as well.
John was 15 minutes under freezing water before he was pulled clear. He was officially dead for over an hour but then, in an uncanny development – after CPR treatment and electric shock treatment failed – he came back to life again.
Was this due to his mother’s prayers to the Holy Spirit? To the fact that one of his rescuers (a non-believer, as it happens) heard somebody (God?) telling him to “go back” to the spot where the ice broke even though he felt it was a lost cause?
Fools can ask more questions than wise men can answer. These possibilities are mooted in this thoughtful film.
It has many echoes of the Christian theology of death and resurrection. At the end of the day it’s left to us, the audience, to draw our own conclusions about what might have happened on that mysterious day.
Marcel Ruiz plays John. Chrissy Metz is his devout, heavily overweight mother Joyce. She keeps the Faith when most of the people around her are losing theirs. They don’t give John a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving. Even if he does, the consensus of opinion is that his brain will be so damaged from the trauma of having had his lungs full of blood for so long that his quality of life will be nil.
Breakthrough is based on a true story. John Smith confounded medical experts by his resilience. Roxann Dawson’s film captures that resilience in a manner that doesn’t shove its teleological message down our throats, preferring to tell a story rather than issue a polemic.
Topher Grace is engaging as the local pastor, Jason. He has a spiky relationship with Joyce before he grows in her estimation due to his dedication to John’s cause. (She even gets to forgive him for a terrible haircut.)
The one scene that played poorly for me was when the two of them meet up one morning at the hospital where John is a patient. This occurs relatively early in the film when he’s critically ill and not expected to have any neurological future worth talking about. Joyce needed to be near-hysterical here. Instead of that she engages in a rather casual discussion with Jason about their differing tastes in Church music.
This is a rare instance of the film putting a foot wrong. For most of the time it’s earnest and heartfelt. All of its characters are likeable, especially Joyce’s husband Brian (Josh Lucas). There’s a rousing soundtrack which mixes rap music with negro spiritual numbers in a manner that underscores the positive vibe it exudes for most of the running time.