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The faith-based film ‘Breakthrough’ (PG) opens next week, telling the real-life story of a boy who was thought dead after not breathing for 45 minutes

John Smith is a typical 14-year-old Missouri boy who loves basketball, video games and pizza.

He loves his parents, too, but he has trouble expressing it. He rejects his mom’s affection. He turns down her food. Occasionally, he even calls his dad by his first name.     

“It’s just a phase,” Brian Smith tells his wife, Joyce. “He’s just trying to get a reaction.”

John also is trying to find his place in this world. He was adopted as a child from Guatemala and never has understand why his biological mother didn’t keep him. Maybe that’s why his relationship with his mom has suffered. Or maybe it’s just because he’s a teenager with an attitude.

But John does get along with his classmates, and one winter day he and two boys walk onto an icy pond to test their bravery. They’re told by a stranger to get off the pond—it’s dangerous, he says—but they ignore him. Seconds later, they plunge through the ice and frantically begin fighting for survival. Two of them make it back to the surface, but John—in the confusion—is kicked even deeper.

First responders raise his lifeless body to the surface 15 minutes later and transport him to the hospital, where doctors perform CPR and shock treatment in an attempt to restart his heart. Both fail. Forty-five minutes have passed since he fell into the water and stopped breathing, and John is considered dead.    

Then his mom prays. And then his heart starts beating again. Doctors are amazed, but they deliver more bad news to his mom: He likely has severe brain damage.

Joyce, though, isn’t giving up.

“I believe God can heal our son,” she says.

The faith-based film Breakthrough (PG) opens next week, telling the real-life story of a boy who survived a tragic incident that captivated a corner of Missouri in 2015 and eventually captured national attention. It stars Golden Globe nominee Chrissy Metz (This Is Us) as Joyce Smith; Topher Grace (Spider-Man 3) as her pastor, Jason Noble; and Dennis Haysbert (24) as John’s doctor. Marcel Ruiz (One Day At a Time) plays John.

DeVon Franklin (The Star, Miracles From Heaven) produced it, and Roxann Dawson (This Is Us, House of Cards) directed it. NBA star Stephen Curry is an executive director.

The movie involves three parts: 1) John’s struggle with his identity as an adopted child, 2) Joyce’s never-give-up, faith-filled outlook on his recovery, and, finally, 3) The town’s questioning of why God spared John’s life but didn’t spare others.

It seems unfair to call Breakthrough one of the best faith-based films I’ve seen—even though it belongs in that conversation. That’s because Breakthrough is simply a great movie. Period.  

Metz is magnificent. Dawson’s veteran skills as a director are evident. The script is entertaining and inspiring. You know how the film’s going to end, but you’re still enthralled.

Most of all, Breakthrough is a great film because it’s based on an amazing true story written by a powerful God.

“I wanted to stay really true to the story,” Dawson told a panel of Christian media members. “So I did a lot of research.”

John Smith’s miraculous recovery is documented in 301 pages of medical records. Doctors saw it. Nurses saw it. First responders did, too (And if you’re curious, John doesn’t visit heaven).

Warning: moderate/major spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)


Minimal. The scene where John and his two friends fall through the water might frighten sensitive children (Although my 7-year-old wasn’t troubled). We see medical personnel perform CPR and shock treatments on John.


None. Boys talk about a girl being “hot.”

Coarse Language

Minimal. H-ll (2), OMG (2). We hear John say “h-ll” in his home prior to falling through the ice. His mother corrects him. Later, we hear the pastor say the same word in excitement when John shows signs of recovering.

Other Positive Elements

John’s family prays together before a meal. We see them in church. The entire town begins praying when they learn about John’s accident. 

Joyce and her pastor don’t get along—he’s too edgy and modern for her tastes—but they set apart their differences and join in prayer when John is in the hospital.

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

We see a young John ask his mom about his biological mother, “Why didn’t she want me?”

One of his school assignments involves a report on each student’s family tree. John doesn’t want to do it.

Life Lessons

Breakthrough gives us lessons on forgiveness and reconciliation (Joyce and the pastor, and others), the power of prayer (Joyce and others), supporting and encouraging one another (church members and townspeople) and patience (Joyce). It also raises questions about church styles (Joyce’s pastor says he changed the music to attract a younger crowd).


Corrie ten Boom once asked, “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” For Joyce Smith, the answer is obvious. She prayed constantly—or without “ceasing,” in the words of Scripture (1 Thess. 5:17).

Jesus told us to pray. He even told us prayer works (Mark 11:24). That is the message of Breakthrough. Like War Room, it displays the power of prayer. John was thought dead. Less than a month later, he walked out of the hospital as a healthy, normal kid. 

Breakthrough also examines the unanswerable question: Why does God heal some people and not others? Ultimately, we don’t know. But we do know that God’s glory is displayed in both healings and weakness (Rom, 8:28). It’s all part of His plan. Remember: This world is not our home. Eventually, all of us—John included—will die (Heb. 13:14-16).

So, why did God heal John? Maybe it was to show miracles still happen. Maybe it was to remind us that prayer works. Maybe it was to display the power of God and to show others that He is real. Or maybe it was to give John himself a platform for future ministry (The real-life John Smith wants to become a pastor). Maybe all those possibilities are true. Only God knows.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you believe Joyce’s prayer led to John’s heart starting to beat again?

2. Do you believe miracles still happen today?

3. Why does God heal some people but not others?

4. What did you think of the church’s worship service? What did you think of the pastor’s explanation for modern worship?

5. What lessons can we learn about God from miraculous healings? What can we learn about God when people aren’t healed?

Entertainment rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Breakthrough is rated PG for thematic content including peril.

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox