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Breaking through the self

In telling the story of a real miracle, the film Breakthrough points in the right direction even as it sometimes falters in its execution.

A scene from the movie "Breakthrough", which opens in theaters on April 17th. (

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: Unrated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

One of my least favorite adages is “miracles happen everyday”—not because it is untrue, but because of its often shallow and hazy application. So, the sun rising is a miracle, your circulatory system is a miracle, and even your dog catching a Frisbee is a miracle. But miracles are not ordinary events (as amazing as the ordinary can be); they are supernatural and extraordinary phenomena that remind us of the spiritual realm. The Catechism notes that Christ performed miracles so as to “invite belief in him” and to strengthen the faith of those who already do believe in him (CCC, 547-48). In Acts of the Apostles and various Epistles, miracles are shown to be not just real but a frequent part of the Church’s ministry. Both Peter and Paul, in the name of Christ, casts out demons and bring the dead back to life. James instructs the elders to pray for the sick, and they will be healed (Jas 5:16).

Yet the point of miracles is never to show off or impress (think of Simon the magician; Acts 8), but to bring people to Jesus Christ, the source of redemption and salvation.

Breakthrough, which opens in theaters this week, tells the story of such a miracle. In doing so, it points in the right direction even as it sometimes falters in its execution. Directed by Roxann Dawson, and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures through 20th Century Fox, it is based on the 2017 book The Impossible: The Miraculous Story of a Mother’s Faith and Her Child’s Resurrection, by Joyce Smith with Ginger Kolbaba.

The Smith family is in crisis. John, a Guatemalan adoptee, wants nothing to do with his family, interested only in girls, games, and other 14-year-old things. His father Brian is aloof and somewhat disconnected. Joyce, the protagonist and family matriarch, has serious diabetes and tries desperately to control everything around her. This includes not only her rebellious son but their Evangelical church’s new pastor, Jake, who abandons more mainstream Protestant hymns and prayers for a worship service that could easily be mistaken for a rock concert. Jake claims he would “do anything to bring in the young.”

One afternoon, John and two friends foolishly start playing on a frozen lake, and, sure enough, the ice breaks, and they fall in. His friends are recovered quickly, but John sinks and the fire department comes to find him. Despite thinking it is a “recovery, not a rescue,” one of the divers hears a strange voice directing his actions, and he quickly locates John’s body. After twenty minutes underwater and forty-five minutes without a pulse, John’s heart begins to slowly beat again. The doctors, however, keep him in a medically induced coma, skeptical about his chances otherwise. Joyce disagrees. “I know my son,” she cries, “and he’s a fighter. So do your best for John and let God do the rest.”

At first, Joyce is absolutely sure God will heal John completely. However, her conviction is so strong and willful that it borders on delusion, leading to the alienation of everyone around her. When one of her friends suggests the possibility that John might not make it, Joyce growls at her, “I want no negative talk. None.” There are echoes of the prosperity gospel and the Law of Attraction in her attitude: John will survive if everyone just believes hard enough, and no one better sabotage his chances with their bad vibes. Breakthrough wisely challenges these common assumptions. Joyce is putting herself in charge of John’s life rather than giving him up to the will of the Lord.

The weight of this burden becomes so stressful that Joyce herself goes into a diabetic coma. During her recovery, she admits her vulnerability, realizing that she isn’t in control of John’s life, and never was. She agrees to have John brought out of the coma. Even Joyce is surprised when he wakes up almost immediately, without any lung or brain damage. His doctor is dumbfounded. Privately, the physician speaks in hushed tones to John’s parents. “I’m not supposed to use this word,” he says quietly, “but this is a miracle.”

The film then shifts to John’s perspective and changes in personality and attitude. This is all new to him, and he experiences intense guilt. Why would God save me and not someone else? This is a fascinating aspect of the conversation that, unfortunately, is never explored in a satisfying way.

The majority of life is lived in small and ordinary moments, but sometimes God speaks in dramatic and unexplainable ways. A miraculous cure is a good example. But even if John had died, God could have used that experience as well. Peace is found in praising and blessing God in times of both joy and sorrow, and that is the true breakthrough shown in this film.

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About Nick Olszyk 207 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".

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