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Disney+ Review: Clouds

October 16, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Clouds, a new teen drama that was recently acquired by Disney Plus and is dropping on the streaming service today, is a biopic of Zach Sobiech, the young singer-songwriter with terminal cancer whose bittersweet folk-pop song “Clouds” became a viral hit in 2012 when he was seventeen years old.

Sobiech was dying of osteosarcoma when he wrote and recorded the song as a way to say goodbye, and the film depicts the last few months of his life during his unexpected rise to fame. Directed by Justin Baldoni, who previously made a short web documentary about Sobiech entitled My Last Days, this is a surprisingly good musical drama that packs a genuine emotional punch.

When we first meet Zach (played by Fin Argus) in the film, he is performing a stripped down acoustic version of “Sexy and I Know It” at his high school talent show, playing to the crowd and making light of his bald head from chemo. And it’s a good way to introduce Zach, showing him as a fun-loving kid stuck in a tragic situation.

At the start of the film, Zach is in good spirits and seems to be doing well, with hopes that his most recent round of chemotherapy will finally kill the osteosarcoma he has lived with for a few years. But an emergency surgery for a collapsed lung leads to the discovery that his cancer has spread and is terminal, with the doctors warning him that he has less than a year to live, and might not make it to graduation.

Zach makes the decision to stop chemo, allowing his hair to grow back, and decides to spend the time he has left pursuing a relationship with his classmate Amy (Madison Iseman), and writing songs. Hoping to realize his long-held dream of becoming a professional musician, Zach forms the musical duo A Firm Handshake with his best friend Samantha “Sammy” Brown (Sabrina Carpenter). The two start posting recordings of their songs online, paving the way for the viral hit that gives the film its title.

Yes, Clouds is an unabashed weepie, but it’s also more honest about death and dying than I expected it to be, and is all the better for it. While the film does lean in to an inspirational message about following your dreams and making the best of the time you’ve got, this is also pretty heavy stuff, and Baldoni doesn’t shy away from the reality of a young life being cut short by terminal illness. The film also does a very good job of detailing the different ways that Zach’s parents Laura (Neve Campbell) and Rob (Tom Everett Scott) deal with their son’s pending death, as well as how his siblings respond to his diagnosis.

Argus, in what is surprisingly his first leading role in a feature film, delivers a very good performance as Zach, managing to be charming and likeable as well as heartbreaking. It’s a very demanding role, both physically and emotionally, and Argus, who is also a trained musician, handles it extremely well in what is a star-making turn. The rest of the cast does fine work as well, including a memorable role for Lil Rel Howery as a kind teacher who helps Zach in unexpected ways.

The film is based on Laura Sobiech’s memoir Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way, which has been adapted by screenwriter Kara Holden. While religion is not the explicit focus of this screen version of the story, the film also doesn’t ignore it, including a touching sequence where the family takes a trip to Lourdes in search of a miracle. While the hoped for miracle of Zach being cured doesn’t occur, one could say that he still received a miracle in the form of everything he was able to achieve in his final months. 

In its own way, Clouds does have the feel of a faith-based drama, but the film is designed so that it will be able to reach non-religious audiences as well. Remaining completely sincere in its ambitions, Clouds is an engaging and moving film that serves as a wonderful tribute to Zach Sobiech and his short but impactful time on this earth.

Clouds is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

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