For a movie adapted from a memoir called “Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way,” Justin Baldoni’s “Clouds” is surprisingly light on the Jesus of it all. The inspirational story of Zach Sobiech and the hit song the 17-year-old musician wrote after being confronted with his terminal osteosarcoma diagnosis in 2012 (and taking a last-ditch family trip to Lourdes), this true-life tear-jerker seems poised to become the latest addition to the growing sub-genre of “behind the music” biopics about Christians who deal with cancer by recording chart-toppers about their love for God.
But it only takes a few minutes to realize that “Clouds” isn’t just another honeyed and ham-fisted piece of evangelical propaganda — even if the likes of “I Can Only Imagine” and “I Still Believe” made canny bids for mainstream success by hiding their full religiosity until the very end. If Baldoni’s sometimes moving and often graceful Disney+ debut can be described as “faith-based” — a big “if” for a filmmaker whose directing work has always evinced a single-minded yet decidedly secular interest in the lessons we can learn from young people at the end of their lives — the faith in which it’s based is found here on Earth, and not floating in the skies above.
It helps that Fin Argus plays Zach as more of a good-natured goofball than a talented martyr. The movie begins four years after Zach’s initial diagnosis, and he’s already survived God knows how many rounds of chemotherapy by the time we see him amble into view on a pair of crutches and start cracking jokes about how he’s balder than any of the teachers at his Minnesota high school. “Most teenagers out there feel like they’re invincible,” he confides to us via some voiceover narration, but Zach seems to be empowered by the knowledge that he isn’t; he doesn’t know his cancer is about to come back with a vengeance, but he’s already learned that life is more of a gift than a promise, and he isn’t afraid to live out loud and — say — take the stage at the school talent show and bust out a solid acoustic cover of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” when his moonfaced BFF gets too nervous to perform the original tune she’s prepared for the occasion (Sammy is played by winsome and multi-talented “Work It” star Sabrina Carpenter, who leans into her character’s mid-‘90s coffeehouse vibe with the confidence of someone convinced that Lilith Fair is about to make a big comeback).
Real enough even when forcing his way through some of the movie’s clumsier dialogue, Argus endows Zach with an eager self-awareness that owes more to the likes of Bo Burnham than Jeremy Camp, and prevents “Clouds” from drifting off into abstract sentimentality. Anyone familiar with “The Fault in Our Stars” or Baldoni’s own “Five Feet Apart” will recognize the YA sheen that’s painted over this story, but Kara Holden’s diaristic script finds a nice harmony between Zach’s “Lots of kids have cancer” ethos and this biopic’s foundational belief that he’s special all the same. Forged with a super-real shorthand that’s just a few oar-lengths shy of “Dawson’s Creek,” Zach and Sammy’s heartsick friendship — and the unrequited crush that hums below it — is compelling enough to support a much closer look than “Clouds” affords it, and only becomes more intriguing when Zach brings a perky new girlfriend into the mix. Baldoni keeps things chaste enough to be tween-friendly while still acknowledging the existence of sex, but it’s worth noting that “Clouds” was sold to Disney after the pandemic crushed its theatrical ambitions, and there’s a strange tension of sorts between the palpable honesty of the film’s characters and the puritanical wholesomeness of its everything else.
At the same time however, there’s something quietly profound about how the selflessness of these characters allows the movie to veer away from the romantic entanglements between them; no one wants to shape the final months of Zach’s life into a scalene love triangle of some kind. His goodness and zeal all stem from a clear-eyed awareness that nobody is here for as long as they think, and “Clouds” uses a reasonably soft touch to explore how these people benefit from stepping back and seeing the big picture. Even Zach’s underwritten parents are afforded their own measure of grace, as Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott both do a fine job of balancing unimaginable pain with hard-fought moments of joy; she distills Laura Sobiech’s religious fervor into a more general desperation, while he gets to play the “cool” dad and vicariously relive his most famous scene from “That Thing You Do!” Lil Rel Howery gets even less to work with as a quote-spouting teacher, but he does it all with charm.
Things shift into a different register once Zach and Sammy start collaborating on some of the Jason Mraz-like jams that will eventually lead to the title song, and “Clouds” spreads itself way too thin as it strains to hit the high notes during the “rise-to-fame” crescendo of its last act; after 75 minutes of above the godawful expectations of its genre, Baldoni’s film turns plastic and anodyne in a way that feels like the stuff of vintage Erwin Brothers Entertainment. Maybe that was unavoidable — maybe there’s just no convincing way to depict what happens when a dying kid writes a nice pop song that becomes a crossover radio hit. But if some lives demand a certain number of chintzy montages in order to fit into a feature-length film, well… I might lose faith in the idea that this weird sub-genre is rooted in anything deeper or more spiritual than cross-promotional synergy.
This movie is, though. There’s no denying that Baldoni seems to have his heart in the right place, and he does right by Sobiech where it counts (it’s worth noting that Baldoni made a short documentary about Sobiech before his death, and has obviously been invested in this story for some time). We’re all dying, “Clouds” insists, the only difference is that Zach can see the seconds tick by, and that perspective motivates him to make the most of the time he has left — to sing about the beauty he’s leaving behind in this world, even as he steels himself for the next. “Clouds” keeps its focus squarely on the ground from start to finish, and it soars that much higher for it.
“Clouds” will be available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday, October 16.