Friday 17 May 2019

"Breakthrough" (Guardian 17/05/19)

Breakthrough **
Dir: Roxann Dawson. With: Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas, Marcel Ruiz. 116 mins. Cert: 12A

Here’s yet another illustration of how the faith-based drama has pushed into cinemas (and thereby monetised) material indistinguishable from vast swathes of the afternoon TV schedule. A true-life miracle has been sourced from Judith Smith’s memoir: the resurrection of the author’s adopted Guatemalan son John, declared clinically dead after falling through the frozen Lake St. Louis in January 2015. Yet it’s presented with no mystery and scant wonder; instead, we get two hours of flatly professional procedural, enacted by performers whose career trajectories have slowed to the point where offering up a few prayers for cash cannot hurt. There are many spots where it suggests how the much-repeated Simpsons episode in which Bart falls down a well might play if its irreverence had been redacted as ungodly by Ned Flanders.

Scene by scene, life-or-death reality is reduced to the basis of an edgeless Sunday-school parable. Early sequences show Marcel Ruiz’s John, something of a novelty in his God-fearing, Caucasian neighbourhood, boosting his outsider reputation by shrugging off homework and feeding mama’s scrambled eggs to the dog, micro-rebellions that – in the film’s sexless, curse-free universe – signify he’s already skating on thin ice to some degree. While we await his rebirth as a meekly assenting believer, seasoned TV director Roxann Dawson kills time with sidebars in which burly fire-rescue workers and trained doctors question whether they too heard a voice out on the ice or saw signs in the OR, working overtime to claim John’s survival as divine intervention rather than, say, a consequence of devout medical care, or a teen basketball player’s innate resilience.

Writer Grant Nieporte allows for small, semi-intriguing pockets of tension beneath the bland surface, such as an ongoing niggle between the film’s traditionalist Judith (Chrissy Metz) and jeans-sporting Pastor Jason (Topher Grace), whose fondness for Christian rap-rock threatens the sanctity of the congregation’s megachurch. Yet they’re smoothed over in a second half over-reliant on that damp-eyed hyperventilation that pulled Metz through TV’s This is Us. What’s left may well be taken as gospel in the more credulous states, but seems likely to be looked upon as, at best, harmlessly dotty in sensible C-of-E parishes. At the production of a closing-credit photo of the real John Smith posing with pals on the same frozen waters that nearly took his life, you too may hear voices, doubtless screaming “For heaven’s sake, stop doing that”. 

Breakthrough opens in selected cinemas today.

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