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'Breakthrough' review: Preachy, but occasionally compelling

Marcel Ruiz and Chrissy Metz star in "Breakthrough."

Marcel Ruiz and Chrissy Metz star in "Breakthrough." Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox/Allen Fraser

PLOT A teenager survives a near-fatal accident thanks to his mother’s prayers.

CAST Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Mike Colter

RATED PG (themes of death)

LENGTH 1:56

BOTTOM LINE A mostly preachy but occasionally compelling dramatization of a true story.

“Breakthrough,” the story of an all-but-dead teenager seemingly revived by prayer, may sound like internet apocrypha, but it is basically true. In 2015, John Smith, a 14-year-old from the suburbs of St. Louis, fell into a frozen lake and remained submerged for 15 minutes. Even after his rescue, he went 45 minutes without a pulse — and then a miracle happened.

Written in the medical record, at least according to the film: “Patient dead, mother prayed, patient came back to life.”

As modern-day Lazarus stories go, “Breakthrough” is slightly less dogmatic and a little more grounded in reality than most. (Two other fact-based tales, “Heaven is For Real” and “Miracles From Heaven,” come to mind.) A coproduction of the faith-based company Franklin Entertainment and the secular Fox 2000 Pictures, “Breakthrough” is mostly intent on preaching to a built-in choir. Still, it leaves its door ajar — even if just a tad — for others who may not share its faith.

The film begins by establishing St. Charles, Missouri, as an idealized community bonded by Christianity, the Pledge of Allegiance and high-school sports. John (Marcel Ruiz), a 14-year-old adoptee from Guatemala, is a mostly well-adjusted if slightly sullen kid; Joyce (an oddly wooden Chrissy Metz, of NBC’s “This Is Us”) is his cheerful if slightly persnickety mom; her husband, Brian (Josh Lucas), is pleasant and bland. Topher Grace plays Jason Noble, a new pastor, whose skinny jeans and use of slang (“lit!”) are meant to signify youthful disruption.

John’s accident shatters this placid American tableau and briefly gives the movie a jolt of excitement. Director Roxann Dawson stages John’s rescue with ticking-clock tension, and his apparent death on a hospital gurney lands with emotional weight. Adding to the drama are a couple of small but solid performances by Mike Colter as an atheist firefighter whose hands are guided underwater by a mysterious voice and Sam Trammell as Dr. Kent Sutterer, whose fierce determination to save his patient deserves some credit, too. (Both are real-life figures.)

“Breakthrough” has a tiresome tendency to paint the medical establishment as book-smart but God-ignorant; Dennis Haysbert plays yet another doctor helpless to explain John’s recovery. At the same time, Grant Nieporte’s script acknowledges that Joyce’s faith sometimes borders on fanatical, and that not everyone’s prayers are answered. In a few small ways, at least, “Breakthrough” tries to tell us an engaging story as well as deliver a sermon.

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