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Movie review: While not perfect, 'Breakthrough' offers a powerful message about prayer

“BREAKTHROUGH” — 2 stars — Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas, Mike Colter, Marcel Ruiz, Dennis Haysbert; PG (thematic content including peril); in general release; running time: 116 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — There’s an inspirational story with some strong messages hiding in “Breakthrough,” but some problems are keeping it stuck under the ice.

Adapted from the book “The Impossible,” Roxann Dawson’s “Breakthrough” is based on the true story of a teenage boy who defied incredible odds to survive a near drowning in Missouri.

John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) is a headstrong all-American 14-year-old kid, with aspirations of being the next Steph Curry on the NBA hardwood. But he’s also wrestling with his identity as an adopted child, so much that it’s impacting his attitude and his schoolwork.

Chrissy Metz (Joyce Smith) and Marcel Ruiz (John Smith, in bed) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s "Breakthrough."
Chrissy Metz (Joyce Smith) and Marcel Ruiz (John Smith, in bed) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s "Breakthrough."
Allen Fraser

Things have been a little more tense than normal with his adopted mother Joyce (Chrissy Metz), who is juggling other problems as well. Chief among them is the family’s new pastor, Jason Noble (Topher Grace), whose sermons are too worldly for her taste.

Things come to a head when John and two of his friends fall through the ice one morning while playing on a frozen lake. His friends are able to get out unscathed with the help of local EMT named Tommy Shine (Mike Colter) and his crew, but John is submerged for a full fifteen minutes before they can haul him out.

When Joyce finally catches up to John at the hospital, the emergency crew has just given up on CPR efforts. But even after a flurry of impassioned prayer is answered with a weak heartbeat, staff, friends and even family fear that John won’t survive the night, and Joyce enters a trial of faith that forces her to examine some of her deepest personal flaws and reconcile her strongest beliefs.

On paper, “Breakthrough” offers a dynamic and inspirational story, and the way it finally resolves Joyce’s character arc with an important lesson about the limits of stubborn faith is poignant. Colter's subtle performance as a man working to reconcile his faith is also effective. Unfortunately, the story struggles to translate to the screen, and some execution issues keep Dawson’s film from hitting its mark.

Part of this has to do with characters like John and Joyce, whose character flaws make them come off as a little too unlikeable. Though her story arc eventually gets to a good place, Joyce is frequently too overbearing, and even unrealistic as she battles and lectures against anyone who crosses her path, ill-intended or not.

Marcel Ruiz (John Smith) and Chrissy Metz (Joyce Smith) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s "Breakthrough."
Marcel Ruiz (John Smith) and Chrissy Metz (Joyce Smith) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s "Breakthrough."
Allen Fraser

Other elements, though also well-intended, are too distracting for their own good. An early clip of children reciting the pledge of allegiance is meant to communicate traditional values, but the decision to include the entire recitation makes the message feel pandering and obvious. Later, as a group of supporters gather outside John’s hospital window, a simple song of faith transforms into an energetic music number that feels more appropriate for a pop video or a musical, and shakes the audience out of the world the film had established.

But overall, even through its struggles, "Breakthrough" manages to communicate a thoughtful message about the power of prayer, and to its credit, reaches out to those who don't see the same miraculous answers as its characters.

Rating explained: “Breakthrough” is rated PG for some intense situations.