By Chris Byrd
NEW YORK (CNS) — Based on Laura Sobiech’s 2014 memoir “Fly a Little Higher,” the heartwarming, winsome feature film “Clouds” is streaming on Disney+. Justin Baldoni directs from Kara Holden’s sharply observed, thoughtful screenplay about the life of Sobiech’s late son, Zach (Fin Argus).
Even as he was dying of cancer, the Minnesota teen became a YouTube singing sensation in 2013 with the song from which the movie takes its title. As a postscript notes, “Clouds” has been downloaded and streamed more than 200 million times.
The picture’s somber theme and realistic depiction of terminal illness make it too intense for younger children. But there is little objectionable content beyond the suggestive lyrics of a very different ditty, LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know it” — and even this is used fleetingly.
An opening voiceover has Zach reflecting on his situation in the fall of 2012. “Most of the teenagers out there think they’re invincible,” he observes. “The kind of invincible that tricks you into thinking tomorrow might be a better day to chase your dreams.”
Having endured 20 rounds of chemotherapy over his four-year battle with cancer, the senior needs crutches as he enters the auditorium of Stillwater High School to participate in a talent night. (Stillwater is a fictitious stand-in for Zach’s real-life hometown of Lakeland, a small, rural community between Minneapolis and the Wisconsin border.)
This scene establishes several key relationships in Zach’s life. Viewers learn of his budding interest in dancer Amy (Madison Iseman), who eventually becomes his girlfriend. They also meet his best friend Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter), who becomes his bandmate in the duo A Firm Handshake.
One of his teachers, Mr. Weaver (Lil Rel Howery), acts as emcee and becomes a mentor to — and advocate for — the aspiring singer. In the audience, mom Laura (Neve Campbell) is appropriately chagrined by Zach’s decision to perform the edgy song referenced above.
On the way home, Laura — presumably hoping to steer him away from such material in the future — urges Zach to put music to a set of lyrics she discovered while cleaning his room. His mom’s prying upsets him, but she still plants a seed in his mind.
A collapsed lung leads to a terminal diagnosis, and the Catholic family travels to Lourdes in the winter of 2013 to seek healing. The touching, respectful way “Clouds” depicts mother and son immersing themselves in the baths there will gratify viewers of faith.
This experience, combined with Mr. Weaver’s guidance about how to write his college application essay, inspires Zach to pursue his musical dreams. Specifically, his teacher asks Zach to ponder a question Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Mary Oliver poses in her poem “The Summer Day”: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Again with Mr. Weaver’s help, Zach and Sammy’s online success leads to a contract with Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI).
Holden’s script balances the narrative’s dark aspects with its joyous ones wonderfully. Admirably, moreover, it doesn’t shy away from presenting the physical and psychological toll cancer exacts not only on patients but on their families and friends as well. Holden avoids insulting viewers’ intelligence and never tries to prompt unearned emotions.
Accented by Zach and Sammy’s buoyant and infectious pop music, the film’s bright moments offer the audience relief from its grim but accurate details, such as the vomiting and gulping for air Zach experiences or the panic attack that almost causes him to lose control at the wheel of a borrowed GT-R sports car.
“Clouds” affirms the power of music so effectively that viewers will likely share Laura’s enthusiasm as she rushes down the street shouting, “My son’s song is on the radio!” It also shows us a close-knit community encouraging one of their own who has given so much of himself to them, successfully reminding them that “you don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.”
Baldoni’s film leaves its audience mourning Zach’s loss but, at the same time, feeling better about humanity. That’s a rare and winning combination TV fans should welcome.
Chris Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.