From Tragedy to Triumph in ‘Breakthrough’

Breakthrough’s true story of a dramatic rescue shows the power of prayer

(photo: Register Files)

Boys will be boys – and Joyce Smith's adopted son John and his friends seemed determined to prove that with their dangerous horseplay. John and his friends defied the warnings of a concerned neighbor when they ventured onto a frozen lake to, as he joked, “practice for the Olympics.” The incident makes for an exciting opening to the movie Breakthrough:  The boys are laughing and having a great time when – crack! – the ice gives way and all three drop into the icy water. Two are quickly rescued, but John is trapped below the ice. For more than 15 minutes, his body lies in the murky waters deprived of oxygen.

Breakthrough by 20th Century Fox is based on the inspirational true story of one mother's unfaltering love in the face of impossible odds. Doctors believed there was no hope for the comatose John Smith; but his mother refused to accept that he would inevitably die. Joyce's deep faith inspired those around her – her friends, her church community, John's schoolmates – to continue to pray for John's recovery.

Did John survive? Yes, despite the doctors' dismal forecast, he regained consciousness and experienced no brain damage. It was my privilege to meet the real-life John, his mother Joyce, and their pastor last spring, while visiting the movie set in Winnipeg. John was a typical teenager – although with a new appreciation for the gift of Life and a renewed faith in Christ. Joyce was, just as her character in the movie, a humble and happy Christian, confident in God's love and His abiding presence.

I was struck by not one, but two integral themes in the movie. First, there is the strength of Joyce's faith: Breakthrough is an enthralling reminder that faith and love can create a mountain of hope, and sometimes even a miracle. But secondly, I was impressed by the film's strong message regarding the efficacy of prayer. In the church sanctuary, in the classroom, on the basketball court, in the waiting room and the hospital parking lot, people came together to pray for John. It was inspiring to see so many souls knocking on the door of heaven, begging God to come to the aid of their classmate and their friend.

There are times when we fear that the challenges facing those we love are too great – that the situation won't change. Disaster seems inevitable, and we may be tempted to believe that the Lord will not intervene. But James 5:16 reminds us that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Our loving God hears our pleas; and while we don't know how He will answer (God may, for example, understand better than we do what is truly best for us), we know that as our Father, He longs for us to embrace His love and to trust in His faithfulness.

Breakthrough opens in theaters on April 17. In the movie, Joyce Smith is played by Chrissy Metz (This Is Us, American Horror Story). Marcel Ruiz, who starred in Netflix's reboot of One Day at a Time, plays the young John Smith. Topher Grace (That '70s Show) inspires in the role of Joyce's real-life pastor, Pastor Jason Noble.