Cancer is the ultimate destroyer. This miserable disease shatters the expectation that a family’s bond can conquer anything. Beyond prayer and faith, it’s our loved ones who keep us going — they enliven our dreams, fuel our hopes, and inspire us to maximize our one and only precious life. For Zach Sobiech and millions of young people out there, terminal cancer can rid all of that propulsion in a matter of months. The Minnesotan teen tragically died in 2013 from osteosarcoma, a vicious bone cancer that depleted his body but never his spirit. Zach’s zest for living despite impending doom received national spotlight when his song “Clouds” went viral, climbing to #1 on iTunes immediately following his funeral.
Director Justin Baldoni revisits the final months of Zach’s short-lived time on earth with the aptly titled Clouds. The Disney+ original lacks the confessional freedom of Baldoni’s similarly heavy Five Feet Apart but still pays moving tribute to a young soul gone far too soon. More importantly, it gives families and patients dealing with such grim circumstances the chance to value the limited time remaining rather than dwell on inevitable time lost. As an actor himself (best known for starring in The CW’s Jane the Virgin), Baldoni knows how to pull authenticity from his cast without falling into a pit of continuous histrionics. Clouds is a ferocious tearjerker, as it should be, but like Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars, it’s goal is to remain looking “up, up, up.”
Newcomer Fin Argus portrays Zach with optimistic strength despite his crushing ailment. Disney goes a tad too far pushing the teen heartthrob image onto Zach — he’s even got his own love triangle to untangle. Still, Argus mostly keeps the swagger and showboating in check, nailing those torturous moments of a cancer patient’s lifeforce slip away from them, slowly and painfully, and unable to stop it.
While Tom Everett Scott, Lil Howery, and Madison Iseman are underutilized playing key figures in Zach’s orbit, Kara Holden’s script gives exceptional space for veteran actress Neve Campbell and musician-turned-actor Sabrina Carpenter to shine mightily. The former 90s megastar demonstrates she’s so much more than her Scream past and Party of Five stints, showing the complicated avenues of motherhood when faced with a child guaranteed to die before their parent. How does one move forward from this unimaginable loss, not to mention keeping a marriage intact during the grieving process? As Laura Sobiech, Campbell adds nuance and unique perspective to an impossible dilemma, churning out a performance that stands tall with the best of Disney parent past.
Meanwhile, Sabrina Carpenter will blow audiences away with the lilting power of her vocal instrument and the breadth of her empathy. As Zach’s best friend Sammy, Carpenter masters unconditional loyalty and love. Furthermore, her eyes betray Sammy’s deeper romantic feelings reserved for a future that Zach will no longer make. These intimate unveilings almost cross a privacy line for the sake of juicy teen melodrama, but Carpenter handles the cliché twist with tender hesitation and genuine respect for the real-life figures she’s honoring.
Everett Scott and Lil Howery play Zach’s father and teacher, respectably. Though their roles are mostly unmemorable, kudos to Howery for transcending esoteric classroom poetry. The narrative’s biggest misstep is how it handles Zach’s relationship with his girlfriend, Amy (Iseman). The widely seen Katie Couric interview about Sobiech’s life reveals that Amy was good friends with Zach a year before dating. In Clouds, their mutual crush seems rushed and conveniently timed. Amy serves as a placeholder for love rather than a fully realized character who chooses Zach because they are genuinely compatible, not because time is of the essence.
Clouds showcases faith during a helpless crisis with surprising maturity. Laura Sobiech traveling her family across the world so Zach can be submerged in alleged healing waters isn’t about abandoning science for divine intervention; it’s more about leaving no stone unturned so that every opportunity to help Zach is exhausted before his final breath. A mother’s devotion to her child goes beyond reality’s limitations, so to expect anything less is living in an alternate universe.
Moreover, it’s because of Laura’s persistence and alternative outlook on Zach’s terminal illness that he decides to fulfill his music career dreams by sharing his talents with the world. Who knew it would crater into near-overnight fame? Ultimately, Zach Sobiech’s gift to society proves that if you risk everything for today instead of postponing for tomorrow, life rewards the bold, even those suffering the worst.