There’s a rather vital figure in the history of Christianity — his name is Jesus Christ — who suffered a famous, agonizing moment of spiritual doubt when he looked up from the Cross and said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But no such crisis of faith, even for a split second, ever afflicts Joyce Smith (Chrissy Metz), the suburban Missouri mom at the center of the feel-good Christian disaster movie “Breakthrough.”
Joyce, like Jesus (or Job), is enduring a trial beyond all human reckoning. On a sunny Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January 2015, her 14-year-old adopted son, John (Marcel Ruiz), is horsing around with two buddies on the frozen surface of Lake Sainte Louise when the ice cracks open, submerging all three boys. The friends get themselves to the surface, but John lies underwater, unconscious, until the rescue workers arrive, some 15 minutes later. At the hospital, he remains lifeless — no pulse, a temperature of 88 degrees; for 45 minutes, he is clinically dead. But then Joyce is given the chance to go into his room to say goodbye to him, and instead of doing that she cries out to God. God hears, and in His way God answers. Within a minute, John’s heart begins to beat again.
“Breakthrough, which is based on Joyce Smith’s 2017 book “The Impossible: The Miraculous Story of a Mother’s Faith and Her Child’s Resurrection” (co-written with the Christian author and media personality Ginger Kolbaba), presents itself as the true story of a modern miracle. But it’s also a portrait of what religious faith looks like when there’s no pesky doubt to get in the way.
For most of the movie, Joyce pushes back against the medical establishment, never admitting that her son is going to do anything but make a full recovery. She fights science and rationality, fights the doubters in the hospital corridors, fights her supportive but downbeat husband, Brian (Josh Lucas).
In a strange way, it’s a happy war. Joyce may be enduring the crisis of her life, but she has never been more at home, never more overflowing with God’s love than when her son is at death’s door. “Breakthrough,” depending upon your vantage, is either an authentic true-life docudrama (it all really happened!) or a trumped-up fable of mystical kitsch (who are they kidding?). Either way, it has the potential to be a solid mid-level hit. Those eager to believe in miracles will likely turn out for it, while the non-miracle demo will stay away.
You might even say that the movie is a product of the miracle-industrial complex. It belongs to a rising mainstream tide of faith-based films, and that very fact — that it’s part of the commercialization of faith — is an intrinsic element of its appeal. To watch “Breakthrough” isn’t just to go to a movie. It’s to join a congregation of fellow believers. It’s to celebrate the fact that a major Hollywood studio (or what used to be a major studio: Twentieth Century Fox and its now-defunct specialty division, Fox 2000) could put out a drama that’s unabashedly Christian in its sentimental urgency. This isn’t the first time that’s happened, of course, but the trend is building, in part because of a shift in the cultural-political landscape. In Trump’s America, belief in miracles may be the new mainstream. Or, to put it less charitably, the belief in miracles may now be inextricable from the belief in fake news.
Lying there in a medically induced coma, John is still fighting for his life, and the doctors have told Joyce that even if he recovers, he’ll be seriously neurologically impaired. That’s because of how long his brain was deprived of oxygen. So Joyce is praying not just for John’s life but for the restoration of who he was: a lively, mouthy jock who was the starting guard on his Christian middle-school basketball team and was just entering that zone of alienated independence known as adolescence.
At Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, a world-class medical facility in St. Louis, Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert), the esteemed physician who is heading up John’s case, warns Joyce to scale down her hopes. John, he says, is too far gone to make much of a recovery. But Joyce believes in a higher power than medicine, and she refuses to countenance the good doctor’s words — or to allow any negative talk about John’s prognosis, especially if the conversation takes place in front of him. “He can hear you,” she says.
Chrissy Metz, from “This Is Us,” is a very fine actress who, for once in these films, possesses the authentic look and aura of a devout middle-class mother from the contempo heartland. The early scenes reveal Joyce to be in the midst of a deepening cold war with her son, and that nags at her, as if he were chafing, on some level, at the fact that he was adopted by the Smiths at nine months, after being born in Guatemala. Metz cues us to see the insecurity beneath her affectionate bluster, and the anger too, as when Joyce exchanges testy words with her pastor, Jason (Topher Grace), who she dislikes everything about: his glad-handing style, his Southern California haircut, his tendency to feature hip-hop-inflected pop bands at the center of his Sunday sermons. In “Breakthrough,” Chrissy Metz has the charisma of a woman we might call blessedly ordinary, yet when her eyes look up at God, you can practically feel His presence.
What you don’t feel, ever, in this fundamentalist weeper is a sense of drama rising out of feelings that are less than absolute. True, there’s a moment when Joyce confronts what might be described as her own sin. Speaking to God, she confesses that in not allowing for the possibility that she might lose John, she has been guilty of “pride.” Yet according to the movie, it’s that very pride — the unwavering certainty of Joyce’s belief — that saved her son’s life in the first place. So how wrong could it be?
Watching “Breakthrough,” which is written (by Grant Nieporte) and directed (by Roxann Dawson) in a standard-bordering-on-generic inspirational style, there’s never much suspense about what’s going to happen to John, since the case the film is based on has been highly publicized. The drama is in watching Joyce become extraordinary through the singular force of her faith. Yet it isn’t quite that simple. “Breakthrough” comes on as one family’s amazing story, no more and no less, yet the movie carries an implicit political dimension. You could put it like this: Who needs the Affordable Care Act — or, in fact, who needs big government at all — when you’ve got God?
“Breakthrough” is a Christian-faith-vs.-medical-science movie, a paradigm that’s increasingly been brought into play by Republican politicians who treat (for instance) climate-change science as if it were just another “mythology.” Am I blaming our environmental woes on “Breakthrough”? Certainly not. Yet it’s fair game, and hardly irrelevant, to point out the continuity between certain right-wing policies (don’t worry about the planet! It will take of itself!) and the theology of “miraculous” Christian thinking.
On the surface, there’s no reason why a tale of mystical healing should inherently belong to either the conservative or liberal camp, especially given that the current leader of American conservative politics, Donald Trump, is a rage-fueled narcissistic demagogue who, measured by his words and deeds, is no more a Christian than he is a Martian. Yet the aspect of “Breakthrough” that makes it, spiritually and culturally, a movie of the Trump age is the literal-mindedness of its faith. The movie isn’t just an affirmation of Christian belief; it’s a sentimental celebration of never doubting. It says to its audience, “If your faith is strong enough, then you will be protected, no matter what.” That’s an incredible reassurance, but it’s also an excuse — for following certain leaders wherever they take you. No matter what.