Breakthrough (Dawson, 2019)

I guess there are some features of this review that could be considered plot spoilers, although the film’s very premise renders the notion of the plot’s outcome being a “spoiler” problematic. Nevertheless, please don’t read if you do not want to know the resolution of the film’s story before viewing it.

I have been telling anyone who asks my opinion for going on years now that if “Christian” films ever want get out of the niche ghetto, they will eventually need to start telling new stories and not just keep retelling the same stories incrementally better.

The metanarrative for the last decade has been that Christian productions are plucky underdogs, filled with self-taught creators who eventually attract better and better talent from an industry so toxically amoral that simply appearing in a faith-friendly film is an act of moral courage.

There are many problems with that metanarrative — and I feel like I’ve been talking about them for years, sometimes graciously, sometimes not, often as a means of avoiding talking about the relentlessly mediocre films that are overcelebrated in Christian circles in nearly inverse proportion to how comprehensively they are ignored everywhere else.

Breakthrough, the “true” story of a mother who brings her dead son back to life through prayer is not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Topher Grace brings considerable charm and effort to the thankless role of a megachurch pastor who at first alienates and then befriends the traumatized family. The criminally underused and underappreciated Mike Colter plays a fire-and-rescue Atheist to whom God speaks at a moment of crisis. Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas do about as much as they can with roles that would probably be part of the “B” story in any given episode of Chicago Med.

The problem, then, as it so often is in Christian movies, lies not with how the story is told but with the story itself. I was taught as an undergraduate student of literature that one key difference between art and journalism is that art resists summary. Here, the entire movie is condensed to a pithy testimonial from John Smith’s doctor that plays over the final credits: Boy dies. Mom prays. Boy comes back to life.

Is that not enough? Well, no. Not for a movie. For a Christian testimony or a sermon illustration, sure. For a human interest story in the newspaper, yes. But even Breakthrough seems to understand that there is more to a movie than its premise and so it wanders aimlessly through the first act looking in vain for any sort of melodramatic conflict to hold our interest until the ice cracks. It shows friction between Mrs. Smith (traditionalist) and her pastor (contemporary). It shows her son, John being a bratty teenager. The movie scours the edges of the story looking for something, anything other than its central plot event, to fill screen time.

The second act, where John falls through the ice, is rescued, but eventually dies, is the most straightforward part, and we think the film may have righted itself after a shaky start. But the third act is just painfully lost. Breakthrough trumpets John’s experience but refuses to examine it. I don’t even mean examine it suspiciously, I just mean examine it at all. The epitome of the film’s lack of direction comes when a school teacher asks the resurrected boy why his mom’s prayers were answered and hers, for her dying husband, were not. “I don’t know,” the boy shrugs, “but I’m sorry that happened to you.”

That’s a perfectly acceptable response for a teenager to make about an eternally confounding theological question. I might even have come to embrace the film if it had decided to start in Act Three and make itself about the psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects of the family having gone through this trauma rather than than about the trauma itself. Instead, the third act is essentially the film confessing it has no idea what the significance of the Smiths’ experience is. But, hey, ain’t God great?

Yes, He is. But I tend to think the Bible, or even just the New Testament, tells a more complex story of His greatness, one communicated by His abiding presence and moral goodness not just when He delivers us from suffering but also when He meets us in it.

The Atheist subplot similarly goes nowhere. Tommy Shine (the firefighter) opines that if there is a God, He must have something special in store for John, to which the boy replies that this is true for all of us. (And then I wrote in my notes C.S. Lewis’s famous quip that one cannot turn nonsense into sense by putting the word “God” in front of it.) Like the response to John’s teacher, this exchange is an evasion of a pertinent question rather than an honest answer. Breakthrough comes across in the third act as being so afraid of saying the wrong thing that it seems content to just point at the event and say “this happened,” as though its meaning and significance should be self-evident. (And here in my notes I wrote down Father Farley’s famous quip in Mass Appeal that the job of the priest is to elevate common suffering into tragedy by saying something ridiculous.)

It didn’t help Breakthrough one bit that I spent a healthy chunk of my Spring rewatching and teaching Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, the best film about miracles that’s ever been made. Yes, I know, auteurs more celebrated and esteemed than Roxann Dawson will suffer in comparison to Dreyer. Maybe it’s not fair to compare Breakthrough to the classics of spiritually significant cinema. Maybe it’s not even fair to compare Breakthrough to more polished and financed secular films. Clearly there is an audience ready, willing, and able to accept the film on its own terms, to celebrate it for what it is, and to send Hollywood that amorphous message that we’re here, we’re Christian, and we’ve got money to spend.

But as for me, I’m tired of apologizing for bad Christian art and even more tired of celebrating mediocre Christian art for not being terrible.

There’s a scene near the end of the Dardennes’s The Kid With a Bike where a boy may or may not be alive. It is so much more powerful and affecting than any moment in Breakthrough because the characters live in a world where the outcome is not a foregone conclusion and the stakes, while lower, are paradoxically more personal and hence more universal.

And, yes (again), I know (again), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have won the Palme d’Or twice. Saying that some other movie is not as nuanced nor as rich as one of their masterpieces is hardly a hot take. I don’t make the comparison to slam Breakthrough or say that you shouldn’t watch it. I don’t think anyone is going to be hurt by watching it or whatever miracles-are-real-inspired-by-a-true-story narrative sermon that gets pumped out next Easter and the Easter after that. I’m just explaining why I’ll be watching something else.

We should never despise the good for not being great. We need not despise the mediocre for not being good. I wish in moments like these that there was some Internet lie-detector hooked up to every laptop so that I could affirm that I absolutely didn’t hate Breakthrough. But, you know, one of those lie detectors I could quickly take off when someone asked, “yes, but did you like it?”

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