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Front Page - Friday, April 26, 2019

Critic's Corner: Finally, a ‘Breakthrough’ in faith-based films

I’ll never forget the time I saw “God’s Not Dead” (2014) and heard an adult exclaim to the teenager sitting beside him, “See? Isn’t this better than ‘Iron Man?’”

“No, it isn’t,” the boy’s drained expression seemed to say.

I agreed with the young man. Despite decent box office returns, “God’s Not Dead” was a dreadful film with appalling acting and a clumsy screenplay that existed solely to reassure its target audience that atheists are just clueless sad sacks who need Jesus.

I don’t believe there’s a film I’ve disliked more during my decade-long tenure writing this column.

“God’s Not Dead” still stands as a paradigm of what’s wrong with most faith-based movies. Typically, the direction is clunky, the acting is amateurish and the dialog is hokey and manipulated to shoehorn awkward mini-sermons into the film.

There are exceptions to this less-than-golden rule. “Heaven is for Real” had real star power behind it when it told the story of a boy who claimed to have seen heaven during a near-death experience and, as a result, it was a decent film.

“Courageous” is a faith-based film that overcame its preachiness with humor and authentic character development. And who among us was not moved, in some way, by “The Passion of the Christ?”

That brings us to “Breakthrough,” the latest faith-based film to slip into theaters alongside mainstream hits like “Shazam” and “Avengers: Endgame.”

“Breakthrough” tells the story of a drowned 14-year-old boy who returns to life after his mother pleads with God to bring him back. Like “Heaven is for Real,” the film’s makers say it’s based on a true story.

Also like “Heaven is for Real,” “Breakthrough” has some major star power behind it.

As I watched, I frequently elbowed my wife and said things like, “Hey, that’s Chrissy Metz from ‘This is Us,’” “Hey, that’s Topher Grace from ‘That ‘70s Show,’” “Hey, that’s Mike Colter from ‘Luke Cage’” and “Hey, that’s the guy from the Allstate commercials!”

My wife gave me her “That’s enough” look when I told her the director, Roxann Dawson, played B’Elanna Torres on “Star Trek: Voyager” and has helmed episodes of “The Americans,” “The Good Wife” and other quality TV shows. “But that’s important!” I insisted.

I was right. Dawson has hundreds of hours of episodic television under her belt, and while “Breakthrough” might look like it was meant for TV rather than the big screen, her experience shows. The film is capably shot and edited and occasionally has a bit of visual panache.

Dawson also is skilled at emphasizing the emotional state of her characters through their placement within the frame, as she demonstrates when the boy’s mother and father, Joyce and Brian, argue from opposite ends of the screen.

A lot of what Dawson does is straight out of Filmmaking 101, but by doing competent and occasionally creative work behind the camera, she avoids the pitfalls that impair many faith-based movies.

Dawson also knows when to step back and let her actors shine – and boy, do they shine. Metz in particular delivers an Oscar-caliber performance in her fearless portrayal of a spiritually charged mother whose prayers seem to spur heaven to action.

In her character’s most vulnerable moments – those moments when the slightest slip would have ruined the scene – Metz holds nothing back and is impeccable.

“Breakthrough” largely succeeds on Metz’s deeply emotional performance in crucial scenes, including the sequence where she pleads with God to not take her son. It’s a gut-wrencher.

The rest of the cast does good work, too, although no one but Metz is tasked with wearing the film’s heart on their sleeves.

While faith-based films don’t need a high-powered cast to succeed, “Breakthrough” shows what a difference good actors can make.

While Metz is powerful, the thing I admire the most about “Breakthrough” is its honesty. Despite their efforts to evangelize to those outside the faith, Christian films rarely feel connected to the human experience. Rather, like “God’s Not Dead,” they simply preach a homogenized message to the choir.

There’s some of this in “Breakthrough.” There are moments when characters who didn’t believe in God before they saw the boy, John Smith, returned fully to life are reduced to shaking their heads and declaring, “It’s a miracle!”

But the greater portion of “Breakthrough” argues that faith in a higher power is as much a flesh-and-blood experience as a spiritual one. And because of this, the characters in the movie behave like human beings, not flannel board cutouts created for a Sunday School lesson.

They struggle with doubt, they’re often at odds with one another and, most relevantly, they ask questions no one can answer. “Why did God bring you back and not my mom?” asks a Post-it Note on John’s locker after he returns to school.

“Breakthrough” is at its bravest as a faith-based movie when someone asks the local pastor, played by Grace, a similar question and he says, “I don’t know.”

Whatever you believe happened to John Smith, there’s no denying he’s alive and well. So, I’m not giving anything away when I say “Breakthrough” delivers an uplifting ending that will raise a “Hallelujah!” from the choir.

But along the way, it does things no other faith-based film has. That gives it credibility as a cinematic work. It also gives it appeal that could extend beyond the choir, although I think the teenager I mentioned at the beginning of this review would still rather see “Iron Man.”