SXSW 2019: Breakthrough

Jim Allison on beach in San Diego, 1975. Photo Credit: Malinda Allison

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of 2018 Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison, you will certainly be familiar with his work after watching Breakthrough.

Allison would take home the Nobel Prize in Medicine because of his role in curing cancer.  The immune system’s role if we’re going to be precise.  There would be plenty of non-believers along the way.  It makes a lot of sense when one sits down to think about it.  Science wasn’t quite at the point of where it is today.  Yet this was a man who would seemingly find a way to persevere in his endeavor.  Because he never gives up in the battle, more people are able to live free of cancer today.

What makes Bill Haney the perfect director to tell Allison’s story is that the man himself has started up companies to cure the world of many diseases.  Haney takes us back to the start when Allison was growing up with older brothers Murphy and Mike in Alice, Texas.  His path next took up to Texas-Austin where he planned to become a biologist.  He would later earn a Ph.D. in 1973 in biological science.  If there’s a reason for Jim doing what he does, one can only look to his own family history.  This is because his mom would die of lymphoma when he was 11.

Allison would focus his research on the T cell and the immune system.  This came during a time in which immunology wasn’t being looked upon in a nice way.  I’m hesitant to say that it was a laughingstock.  He still had a long ways to go in finding a cure.  It doesn’t matter because he would never give up.  At one point, he was pursuing his research at the University of California-Berkeley.  In 2004, he would relocate the lab to New York.  From a business perspective, it would be the right decision to make.

This film would not work without interviewing surviving patients who benefited from Allison’s work.  It could work but it would definitely not have the same kind of impact.  We end up getting to know Sharon Belvin.  She was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma at 22 years old.  Nothing was working at the time but Belvin would agree to a trial for “ipi.”  This particular drug was developed by Nils Lonberg and Alan Korman.  Saying that Bristol-Myers Squibb took a big risk would not be an understatement.  At the time that they took on the drug, Pfizer was failing on their own cancer treatment developed by Jeffrey Bluestone.  But going back to Belvin, she was basically about to give up on life before trying the drug.  A few weeks later, her cancer would be completely gone!  How about that?!?

Breakthrough is a very informative film.  This film also ensures that Jim Allison will not just be only a name in the history books.  If as much as one person learns about Jim Allison’s work, Breakthrough will have done its job.

NARRATOR:  Woody Harrelson
FEATURING:  Jim Allison, Malinda Allison, Murphy Allison, Sharon Belvin, Eric Benson, Jeffrey Bluestone, Michael Curran, Rachel Humphrey, Tyler Jacks, G. Barrie Kitto, Alan Korman, Max Krummel, Lewis Lanier, Dan Littman, Nils Lonberg, Andrew Pollack, Matt Richtel, Pam Sharma, Elliott Sigal, Jedd Wolchok

Breakthrough holds its world premiere during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival in the Documentary Spotlight program. Grade: 3.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.