Monday, May 06, 2019

Breakthrough (2019)

Here's an example of a movie that is really good at what it does, but I don't like what it's doing. In fact, I saw previews for it some weeks back and immediately noted it as one to avoid—I have a policy. However, when I went to the Tuesday matinee schedule last week, I must have been distracted by the fact that I was witnessing history. Practically every damn screen at one of the two multiplexes in my town was dedicated exclusively to the three-hour Avengers movie. Hard pass. I looked up Breakthrough and saw director Roxann Dawson (also known as Klingon B'Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager) has worked on well-regarded TV, directing episodes of The Americans and House of Cards, and thought it might be fun to go in otherwise blind, having forgotten the preview. Jesus Christ—I have a policy to skip these Christian-oriented movies. No good can come of it. White Christian Americans generally seem to feel persecuted these days and I tend to mock them, so my policy is the right one. Among other things, Breakthrough features an alternative universe of popular culture that is like the Bizarro episode of Seinfeld. But there I was. Breakthrough is the story, based on true events, of an adopted boy living in the suburbs of St. Louis who nearly drowned in ice-cold water but was restored to life and full health. Of course that's going to be emotionally moving, but this thing swings like the hammer of Grabthar. It bludgeons. It cudgels. It staves. It is the bulldozer and you are the tree. It's a great time if you like to cry and wince and cry and wince.

Here's where Dawson's skills come in. In a general way, TV has become very good at going for the emotional throat. Even among the few series I've followed in the past decade or so of the big TV blow-up—Friday Night Lights and The Walking Dead, for two examples—I've seen an uncanny ability to whip up high pitches of emotional response (I'm talking tears streaming down the face). It's remarkable. I know I'm sentimental, but come on. They seem to be able to do it at will, although the best shows know to hold back and deliver when it counts. In Breakthrough, the switch is more like stuck in the on position. After some setup it shrewdly takes the form of a tick-tock, as it moves from the accident (a fall through thin ice into a lake) to the rescue to the hospital to the shrieking Lazarus moment and recovery. Another piece of this picture is Chrissy Metz as Joyce Smith, the iron-willed mama bear. She's going to tear a new one in God if she has to. Metz is a very large woman and this role in this movie has the feel of contributing to the empowerment (which seems to be the word of choice) of very large women. See also Lizzo. And then there is Topher Grace (Eric Forman on That '70s Show) as the hip Pastor Jason Noble. He's from California. He incorporates rock bands and rappers—good ones too, in a Coldplay kind of way—into the services at his church, which has all the earmarks of a megachurch. The services roll like Dr. Phil episodes. Joyce can't stand him, and in fact he's quite rude to her in an early scene, but eventually they realize they're both on team Jesus. There are surprises in Breakthrough, but they are more along the lines of you can't believe they would take it so far. For example, when hundreds of people turn up at the hospital for a parking lot candlelight vigil and professional gospel singing turn. Somehow the sound penetrates the glass of a hospital window (the real miracle here) and a tear falls from the boy still on his deathbed by all reasonable expectations. Hosanna! Glorium! I'm not saying I wasn't crying, just suggesting it was against my will. On the other hand, isn't it nice to hear a mother say, "You have a purpose and you are loved."

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