Book I of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is titled “Recalled to Life,” which refers to a man’s release from the Bastille after eighteen years of imprisonment. That could have been a suitable title for the true story of John Smith told in Roxann Dawson’s new film, Breakthrough, the true tale of a teenager who fell through the ice of a small lake near St. Louis in 2015, was under water for a quarter of an hour and without a pulse for another forty-five minutes (“clinically dead,” in other words), but was recalled to life after his mother prayed over his lifeless body in the hospital. And that’s when the story really comes to life.
But . . . will the boy, John Smith (played by Marcel Ruiz), survive after being deprived of oxygen for so long? If he makes it through the first night in the hospital, will he have suffered permanent neurological impairment? Will he ever have a normal life after that? Everybody tells Mrs. Smith not to get her hopes up; to prepare for the worst. Joyce barks at them: “No negative talk!”
The film is based on the book The Impossible: The Miraculous Story of a Mother’s Faith and Her Child’s Resurrection by John’s adoptive mother, Joyce. That subtitle pretty well serves as a spoiler alert about the film’s resolution, which is a very happy ending, indeed.
Chrissy Metz (of TV’s This Is Us) plays Joyce Smith as a bit of a churl, as perhaps Mrs. Smith was – perfectly understandable during the ordeal depicted. In any case, in Miss Metz’ performance you certainly feel like you’re watching a real person.
But she softens. There’s a scene on the hospital roof in which Joyce gives her anxiety and anger over to God. As she stares up tearfully into the night sky, it begins to snow. The music swells. It’s as though screenwriter Grant Nieporte and director Dawson couldn’t resist another miracle. It’s a stretch though, since . . . you know, it’s winter.
This is Mrs. Dawson’s directorial debut (she’s best known as the actress who played B’Elanna Torres, the half-human half-Klingon chief engineer of Star Trek Voyager), and she is very adept at building tension in and wringing emotion from a story that, by its nature, needs plenty of both to work on screen.
But what really lifts Breakthrough out of the sometimes-dreary landscape of Christian filmmaking is its cast. Miss Metz and Josh Lucas are excellent as young John’s parents, but the supporting cast is as good as any you’ll see in any movie: Mike Colter, of Luke Cage fame, as the EMT who pulls John from the icy water; Sam Trammell, a successful film and stage actor, as the emergency room doctor who is first to treat the lifeless 14-year-old; Dennis Haysbert (The Unit and 24) as a physician at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis; and Topher Grace (That ‘70s Show) as the pastor of the Smith’s Evangelical church, scenes of which made me glad to be Catholic.
That said, I think the film ably and movingly portrays the Christian community that rallied around the Smiths – and not just in a scene in which Joyce staggers home, exhausted, to find that neighbors have fed and walked the family dog and filled the refrigerator with food, but also in a number of scenes in which individuals and groups, in and out of church, raise prayers for John’s survival and recovery. Miracles come from God, but it’s good to be in the midst of good people who believe in the power of prayer.
Best of all, Breakthrough is unafraid to face squarely the matter of theodicy, and not just why God permits suffering but also why some are able to endure it while others are not. It’s never a case of whether or not God can heal someone but whether or not He will. This is a great mystery.
Now, as with cures at Lourdes, some may object that, whereas unexpected outcomes do happen in medicine, attributing them to divine intervention is simply confirmation bias. But the circumstances of John Smith’s accident, survival, and full recovery suggest something more.
And it’s not like science is left out of Breakthrough, since much of the film’s action takes place in a hospital, where the best doctors do their best, despite the fact that they are convinced, as a matter of science, that John’s survival, let alone his recovery, are impossible. Yet just a couple of weeks and a couple of days after he lay lifeless as his mother prayed over him, John Smith walked out of the hospital.
It would have been a miracle if had he simply survived in whatever diminished capacity. It’s a double miracle that he was not only recalled to life but to an abundant life.
Breakthrough is rated PG.