This Catholic Adoptive Mother Directed Hit Hollywood Film Breakthrough

Roxann Dawson has gone from co-starring in Star Trek: Voyager to now directing a major feature film. Through it all, her Catholic faith has been an anchor.

By Josh Shepherd Published on April 26, 2019

A faith-driven film released by the mighty Walt Disney Company, Breakthrough heads into its second weekend having earned $19 million at the U.S. box office. So far, the inspirational biopic has also performed exceptionally well in international markets.

Based on a true story, Breakthrough is the first release since Disney acquired 20th Century Fox last month. Now another Disney release may drown out its awareness to diverse audiences, as Avengers: Endgame looks to set new ticket sales records.

On Tuesday, Breakthrough director Roxann Dawson spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. She shared how her faith journey relates to her creative work.

“I’m a director in Hollywood, an admittedly secular environment,” she said to over 1,400 faith leaders gathered. “It’s not easy to find projects that align with my moral and religious beliefs. But I did find one.”

She introduced the trailer for Breakthrough, which went viral over the Christmas season. It ultimately racked up over 100 million views online in two months.



“This is the story of a real-life mother who shows uncommon faith and resolve,” said Dawson. “It is a testament to the power of love, of prayer, of community.”

Dawson’s personal story has enough surprises to be its own inspirational biopic.

The Impossible True Story

Set in the St. Louis area, Breakthrough recounts how teenager John Smith catastrophically fell through a frozen lake on January 19, 2015.

Rescued after 15 minutes underwater, he was without oxygen for an hour. When his mother prayed, he was revived in what his doctors have called “miraculous” events.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Dawson in a recent radio interview. “The first time I read about the story was when my agent sent me the script to look at. I read it through once, then read it again. Then, I went online to start doing some research. What I found gave me chills.”

The boy’s mother, Joyce Smith, authored a 2017 book chronicling the story in detail. Her account is “backed up by 305 pages of medical records,” she said in an interview. Several physicians involved in the case say they have no explanation for how John Smith recovered.

“I thought, My gosh, this story is the most amazing thing I have ever heard of,” recalls Dawson.

“My goal in doing this film was not to preach to the converted, but to hopefully touch as many hearts as I could on their own spiritual journey.”

In Breakthrough, scenes of lively congregational worship and vocal prayers for healing establish the Smiths as a charismatic evangelical family. For more than 20 years, Joyce and Brian Smith have been members of a local Assemblies of God church.

Dawson noted that directing Breakthrough “reinforced my faith, completely and absolutely. Everybody on set thought we were doing something special.”

Yet her own faith tradition differs dramatically from the story she brought to the big screen.

Adopted Into Faith

“I chose Catholicism — or it chose me,” said Dawson at the prayer breakfast. “I was not born Catholic. I’m the daughter of a very devout atheist.”

In a recent interview, she expanded on her search for truth in her formative years. When she began to explore Catholicism, a friend helped her who ultimately became her husband.

“I really fell in love with that religion,” said Dawson. “I got married in the Catholic Church and our kids have been raised Catholic as well.”

Dawson and her husband have two daughters, including one adopted from China. Recently, Dawson has become a sought-after television director, including on such shows as The Americans and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Her big break in Hollywood came years earlier. Dawson co-starred for seven years on Star Trek: Voyager as the space ship’s Klingon chief engineer. She still occasionally appears on-stage at Star Trek conventions.

Producer DeVon Franklin, the driving force behind Breakthrough, interviewed Dawson for her role as director. She recounted to him the remarkable story of adopting their daughter; the producer found it relevant, as John Smith is also adopted.

“When she told me that story about the power of love, I knew she was the director,” said Franklin. “She related to John’s story and made it an authentic portrayal of an adoptive family.”

Her Catholic witness not only changed her family. It ultimately reached Dawson’s stridently atheist dad. “I know [my] choice ultimately softened my father’s heart, who I have no doubt is looking down on me today,” she said.

Trusting Results to a Higher Power

Her first film to direct, Breakthrough has received high — and rare — praise from mainstream media.

The Los Angeles Times called it “authentically moving.” Even the New York Times endorsed it, particularly how it honors first responders and doctors. Their reviewer wrote: “Here, religion is not in contention with medicine, but seems to work in tandem with it.”

Even viewers cynical that divine intervention guided the real-life events can gain from Breakthrough, according to the director.

“Let’s say you don’t believe in miracles,” said Dawson. “You still have to see what [John’s experience] did to the community and the positive impact it had on people. No matter what faith, no matter where you are in your relationship with God, there are takeaways for everybody.”

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Though two and half million Americans have seen it so far, this weekend Breakthrough looks to be overshadowed by an array of Marvel superheroes. Families seeking a PG respite from action-adventure may discover this inspirational film — brought to life by an inspirational woman.

Many say they will see it again this coming weekend, bringing friends and family,” said Dawson at the prayer breakfast.

“My goal in doing this film was not to preach to the converted, but to hopefully touch as many hearts as I could on their own spiritual journey.”


Rated PG for some perilous scenes, Breakthrough is now playing in theaters worldwide.

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