3 out of 5 stars
Clouds is the latest biopic from Disney+ and introduces the world to Zach Sobiech (Fin Argus). The young musical artist who was diagnosed in 2010 with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that affects children. After several years and countless rounds of chemotherapy, the musician learns during his final year of high school that the cancer is incurable, and he has months to live. With the help from his best friend, Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter), the pair focus on songwriting and together they release a hit song that is also the title of this film. The storyline follows Zach as the reality of a terminal illness presents him with an existential decision: how do I want to be remembered?
In full disclosure, the faith-based movie genre is not on the top of my preferred watch list. Many reviewers might say that what most Christian films gain in messaging they tend to lose in overall production value. Although the Sobiechs are a catholic family and Zach’s mom, Laura, has been open in interviews about the critical role faith played in coping with tragedy, this Disney film is noticeably light on the central message of the Bible. What the script does ask of each of us is to remember the reality of our mortality. Early in the movie, Zach observes that “Every teenager believes they are invincible. It’s not the kind of invincible like Superman. It’s the kind of invincible like, ‘I’ll see you in 5 months.’” In this Covid world, we realise more than ever that this sort of presumptive invincibility is foolish.
Actor Fin Argus portrays Zach as a charming goofball who is intent on suffering well even as he and those closest to him agonise over the imminent reality of his death. Soon after receiving his terminal diagnosis, he returns to high school where his English teacher assigns the class a college essay. He asks them to contemplate what they are going to do with their one “wild and precious life”, an enduring question that we should ask ourselves. In a touching conversation with his mom, played effectively by Neve Campbell, Zach asks why he should bother writing about college when he will not get the chance to go. His mom challenges him to take advantage of a life without distraction and focus on what matters most.
Director Justin Baldoni developed a close relationship with Zach years before taking on this film project. Consequently, the supporting cast benefits from a script that has been handled with care. We sympathise with the annoying kid sister who realises she never told her brother “I love you.” Men will relate to the father (Tom Everett) who, perpetually dressed in suit and tie, seems to be escaping and grasping for control at work. The teen cannot help but pursue his high school crush despite the realisation their relationship has nowhere to go.
Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am. Psalm 39:4
Clouds does not portray death in a Pollyanna-like way that is customary for many Disney and faith-based films. There is a moving scene where Zach is standing bare-chested in front of a mirror. We get a glimpse of his emaciated and surgically scarred body as he practices contorting his face into a forced smile. We empathise with his emotional and physical pain and appreciate his effort to ease the pain of those closest to him. The truth is we all walk through life with clouds looming above us, but as Zach reminded everyone, “You don’t have to find out you are dying to start living.”