The new film Clouds is perfectly harmless, which feels almost required to mention up-front. The true story on which the film is based, derived from an online phenomenon, feels like it belongs to a different era of the Internet, when people could spend a day or two on social media focusing on nothing more than a feel-good story. And those involved in the making of the film have uniquely close ties to the subject of the story, a teenage boy stricken with cancer who turned his terminal illness into a way to provide inspiration to others through song. Clouds is nice and well-meaning, but also very much like its title, wispy and transparent and easy to look past.
Fin Argus plays Zach Sobiech, a high-school senior in Minnesota in 2012 trying to make the best of his days in school with the reality that he’s diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that’s slowly but surely ravaging his body. Zach is taking the reality of his shortened life in as good a stride as possible, finding joy in performing music with his best friend Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter) and hoping to go to prom at the end of the year. As the school year progresses and Zach’s time becomes more finite, he winds up an unexpected YouTube sensation when his song “Clouds” becomes a viral hit.
Justin Baldoni (who some of you, including this reviewer, may know almost entirely from his role on the CW show Jane the Virgin) is no stranger to the material in two very different ways. Last year, he made his feature directing debut with Five Feet Apart, a romantic drama in which two teenagers stricken with cystic fibrosis fall in love with each other, even as they’re instructed for medical and safety reasons to stay six feet apart at all times. (Talk about a film with an unexpectedly relevant logline.) But the wrinkle with Clouds is that Baldoni is no stranger to Sobiech’s story, having directed a documentary about the young man before his death in 2013. Behind-the-scenes footage of the documentary shows up during the end credits, allowing us to both see the real Zach and the effect he had on so many people.
All of this means that Clouds is an inherently respectful film, one that’s both low-key and unchallenging. (It is perhaps noteworthy that the book on which the film is based, written by Zach’s mother, name-checks God and faith in its subtitle. That subtitle is omitted from the end credits, and the film isn’t explicitly faith-based.) Like Five Feet Apart, there’s a romance at the core of the drama, with Argus and Madison Iseman doing a fine job of portraying two sweet high-school kids in an impossible situation. Where Clouds fails to truly lift off is in those key performances. Five Feet Apart had the benefit of Haley Lu Richardson as its exemplary lead performer; she all but forced the film to transcend its weepie foundations into a story whose emotions were vastly more earned.
It’s not that the performances from Argus, Carpenter, or Iseman are bad. The problem is that neither they nor the script are able to elevate beyond being a straightforward tearjerker in the vein of A Walk to Remember. The way that music plays a major role allows this movie to feel slightly more distinctive, but Zach’s transition into being a musical sensation — we see some archival footage, in which journalists like Katie Couric talked about the fast-paced popularity of his song “Clouds” — only occurs in the final third of the 121-minute movie. The main adult actors, including Lil Rel Howery as a kind teacher, and Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott as Zach’s parents, acquit themselves as well as the kids do, but the story never feels quite as special or profound on this side of the screen as it may have to those who brought this story to life. (Fans of That Thing You Do!, the 1996 film that served as Scott’s breakout role, will appreciate that there’s a scene in Clouds that recalls the earlier film when our characters leap in delight when they hear their big song play on the radio for the first time.)
Clouds is…fine. Baldoni has a solid eye as a director, and only a truly heartless person wouldn’t find something even remotely emotional or sad in the plight of young Zach Sobiech. This is a film with incredibly noble intentions, and there’s nothing exactly wrong with it. It’s the kind of film that could easily grab an online audience much as the eponymous song did; Clouds was supposed to be released through Warner Bros. before they sold it to Disney+ earlier during the pandemic. But while Clouds absolutely has its heart in the right place, that heart doesn’t translate into a similarly winning story.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10