The latest in “Christploitation” features a relevant cast, capable direction & a message of hope instead of fear.
The faith drama (or Christploitation film) has been enjoying a resurgence of sorts for the past five years. Led primarily by the folks at PureFlix Entertainment and their God’s Not Dead trilogy, the evangelical exploitation genre seems to have found a niche in not so much conversion, but comforting the already converted. The goal seems to be to confirm that every belief they already hold is correct, and to encourage the myth of a modern-day derision of Christians in America. Based on box office numbers alone, Persecution Porn sells, but what it doesn’t do is bring critical acclaim or respectability. That’s why a film such as Breakthrough feels like a genuine breath of fresh air within the genre: a Christian film that actually feels Christian.
Breakthrough tells the based-on-a-true-story of 14 year-old John Smith (played by Marcel Ruiz of the criminally cancelled One Day at a Time). John is the adopted son of Joyce (Chrissy Metz, This is Us) and Brian (Josh Lucas, The Mysteries of Laura), former missionaries and doting, church-going parents. John is in the midst of deep teen angst: he’s annoyed by his parents, trying to gain a sense of self, and most importantly, struggling with not knowing who his birth parents were.
Joyce isn’t able to cope with this shift in John’s personality very well, and it helps even less that her church’s new fancy-haired, California transplant pastor (Topher Grace) pisses her off to no end. However, this all comes to a screeching halt when John and his friends go to play on a frozen lake and John falls through the ice. After being pronounced dead at the hospital, Joyce desperately prays over his body, and a faint pulse returns.
Grant Nieporte’s script deserves quite a bit of credit for uplifting this story above the fray of other faith dramas by introducing very basic, but (for the genre) somewhat revolutionary ideas. Most importantly, Nieporte’s Christian characters are genuinely flawed. Joyce wishes to control everything. Pastor Jason is too preoccupied with getting everyone to think he’s the “Cool Preacher.” John is struggling with his identity outside of his faith. These are all things that are typically missing from a Pure Flix film, where every Christian is perfect and flawless.
Grant Nieporte’s script deserves quite a bit of credit for uplifting this story above the fray of other faith dramas by introducing very basic, but (for the genre) somewhat revolutionary ideas.
Secondly, the sole Atheist within the film isn’t an archetype of complete dickery or pure evil. He’s just a genuinely good guy who does good deeds, but just doesn’t believe in God. Even by the end of the film, it isn’t 100% clear whether or not he chooses to convert. He is busy making up his mind and the film is fine with leaving it at that. That kind of vague moment is unheard of within the Christploitation world.
That being said, the story isn’t at all perfect. It takes quite a long time to get to John falling through the ice, and by the time it happens, it moves the focus away from some of the more interesting aspects of the script. There’s also a glaring issue of discussing the reasons behind why a parent would give up a child for adoption. John is clearly affected by his birth mother’s choice, and Joyce’s history with the subject reveals her deep hidden feelings on the topic. Yet, neither character comes together to discuss their feelings. At times, the script seems to suggest that if you were given up for adoption, it might actually be because you weren’t wanted, and not the result of any extenuating circumstances.
Breakthrough is the kind of film that, whether they are willing to admit it or not, PureFlix wishes they could make. It features a currently relevant cast of stars, is helmed by a veteran director, and showcases a story of hope and kindness that accurately reflects the biblical text they espouse. But the real breakthrough that this film has discovered, that PureFlix probably never will, is how to create a compelling story complete with flawed characters, difficult questions, and the ability to create hope rather than stoke fear.