I’m usually not a big fan of “faith-based films,” not to be uppity about it. Usually, they are made by and for Christians, and nobody else. That bugs me. Art is art and should be shared by all of God’s created beings. This feeling was entrenched during my 17 years as an entertainment writer for the Grand Rapids Press, a job that occasionally had me reviewing films. I mean, what’s the value of good message wrapped in a low-quality package?
But I was genuinely excited about the movie “Breakthrough,” not only because it was based on a true story (as a writer, I love true stories!), but also because it starred my girl Chrissy Metz. I adore Chrissy as Kate Pearson in “my story” This is Us, now on a cruel and heartless five-month hiatus. I know my fellow Us fanatics will turn up en masse to see the film and Chrissy’s performance as miracle mama Joyce Smith. And they, like me, won’t be disappointed.
I saw the movie the night after it opened and was (mostly) glad I did. Here are my 10 thoughts about Breakthrough:
- Does Breakthrough bust through that crust of ice covering many Christian films, just to glom onto the most obvious metaphor? I think some ice was chopped. Progress was definitely made—let’s say that. Even my cynical teenagers (aren’t they all cynical?) got into it, and that is saying something. “It wasn’t like so many Christian movies, where it’s ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” my son said. Good insight. No, this has an invitational heart, not a divisive one.
- I cried through about 75% of the movie, which does not mean it was manipulative. My children will tell you I can cry at almost anything, including when a contestant with a hard life gets a 1 chair turn on The Voice. Or allergy commercials. But this movie was incredibly moving on many levels.
- The top level, of course, is how a mother’s love and faith in God seem to raise this kid from the dead. (Not a spoiler—everyone knows this!) But another level is how John (a sweet and vulnerable Marcel Ruiz), struggles as an adopted child. “Sometimes it’s hard to be adopted,” I had just told a friend of mine, a fellow adoptive mother. I ached for John as he grappled with feeling abandoned and unwanted by his birth mother in Guatemala.
- I wish they would have used different language about adoption. “Nobody wanted you, but we did…” (I am paraphrasing here) is a dubious message to send your adopted child. I was yelling on the inside, “Your birth mother loves you and wanted you, but she couldn’t take care of you!” My daughter (adopted from Korea) talked about this on the way home.
- One more adoption comment: I was struck how Chrissy Metz is using her gifts to tell another adoption story. On This is Us, she plays the sister of a transracial adoptee; here she plays the mother of one.
- The potency of this film lies in the true miracle of John emerging unscathed from being underwater for 15 MINUTES. I mean, he drowned. It would have been a much less effective film if it had been a made-up story, much as I love fiction. That his impossible recovery really happened gives this story credibility. Another effective element is the message that not everyone gets their miracle. I think of sweet Rachel Held Evans, a young writer who did not get the miracle we all prayed for.
- Like Kate Pearson, Joyce Smith is a woman with baggage and control issues. Metz’s performance renders a deeply relatable, human woman, who is pigheaded, controlling, and judgmental. I think we have all been there. When crisis strikes, her social filters are sandblasted off, and her carefully constructed world crumbles. I bought her as a mom (she has a very maternal quality), as a woman with a churchy veneer, and as a woman undone by catastrophe. Bravo, Chrissy!
- Joyce’s interactions with her pastor (an engaging Topher Grace) are riveting. At first, she can’t stand his boisterous church music (Hey, Lecrae!), his pop culture sermon references or his hipster hair. She is old school and proud of it. A little too proud of it. But with her child at death’s door, Jason turns out to be what she needed all along, a friend, a minister in the truest sense of the word, a shepherd in skinny jeans. Knowing many pastors as I do, I found the way Jason walked with this family in their darkest hour to be touching.
- If you notice that everyone has a different accent in this film, that’s because it’s supposed to be set in Missouri, but was filmed in Winnipeg, my hometown (bonus!). So Metz goes for an appropriate slight drawl, her son, adopted as a BABY from Guatemala has a Latino accent (um), and almost everyone else speaks with accents so Canadian they would put Red Green to shame. Trivial, I know, but noteworthy.
- While this movie has its critics (Rex Reed called it “glib and unconvincing”), a handful of top critics gave it positive reviews, including The L.A. Times, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Hollywood Reporter. Bilge Ebiri of the New York Times gave it two stars out of four, but he said it best: “You don’t have to believe in divine intervention to be moved by this story.”
What do you think? Have you had a chance to see Breaththrough? Do you want to? Why or why not? Us fans, are you going for Chrissy?