Clouds (2020) is the new Disney+ exclusive based on the true story of Zach Sobiech, a terminally-ill teen musician who turned his last days into a musical phenomenon. It really is an inspiring tale: what began with internet stardom exploded into the hit single for which the film is named. All of this, I emphasise, for the sake of capturing a beautiful yet tragically short-lived dream.
The question is, does Clouds do this remarkable story justice?
The short answer is . . . kind of. Of course, the film has plenty going for it. Directed by Justin Baldoni and penned by Kara Holden, the film is frequently touching and sincere and will sit well with most viewers. Our protagonist, played by Fin Argus, is presented about as amicably as possible. From the get-go, we can see that he takes cancer in his stride, and with humour no less, in a way that tells us he’s been fighting it for some time. This geniality reveals a level of bravery that endears us to him instantly. He shares a delightful on-screen chemistry with his best friend and musical partner, Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter). Their dynamic is held strong by the kind of banter and irreverent back-and-forth reserved for only the closest friendships. We get whiffs of this as they rib one another lovingly over song titles they’ve thought up, or other charming nonsense.
This is, unfortunately, where the cracks begin to show. As the banter increases, it proliferates almost every dialogue with every character, to the point it becomes incessant. With everyone firing overwritten quips on all cylinders, the dialogue begins to feel sculpted. This is to the detriment of immersion—characters come across as overly-scripted, which is troubling when they’re meant to reflect real people.
On this note, the film largely seems to have two modes: fun, banter mode and sad mode. There even appears to be two separate colour grades—one desaturated and the other bright and cheerful—to tell you which is which. That’s not to say these two aspects of the film aren’t effective. Believe me, there are moments in this film which capture the tragedy and inspiration of Zach’s story in equal measure. Without giving too much away, Holden is right to place focus on the bittersweet legacy of Zach’s song and the posthumous effect he had on people. However, that the characters switch between the ‘banter mode’ and ‘sad mode’ as and when the story demands it starves them of a certain authenticity and three-dimensionality that the film so sorely needs. This is why I say that Clouds “kind of” does the story justice. It frequently falls short of feeling authentic.
This is never truly distracting though, primarily for the abundance of strong acting. With the exception of Tom Everett Scott as Zach’s father—who struggles to carry his sensitive scenes—every performance is convincing and emotionally-ranged. The biggest tip-of-the-hat has to go to Fin Argus, though, who gives more than a robust performance. Where the writing falters, he’s always there to pick it up with his delivery. He frequently adds a sincerity to the role befitting of the true story upon which it is based. It’s more than just dialogue; when the story calls for it, he brings a physicality to his performance that adds a tangible pain to his movements. There is one, minuscule moment I’d like to draw attention to, immediately following his terminal cancer diagnosis. Zach stands in the bathroom, staring listlessly into the mirror. Between his uneven breathing and shuddering bones, a fake smile quivers away, revealing the face of a boy digesting his own mortality. No words needed. Just pure, brilliant acting from a magnificent talent. It’s safe to say that Argus’s respectful and intricate interpretation of Zach Sobiech is worth the two-hour run-time in itself.
Don’t go into Clouds expecting perfection. Again, its screenplay could have done with a little more time in the oven, because it often lacks the authenticity required of a true story. Allegedly, efforts were made to transport Zach Sobiech’s real personal effects onto the screen, like shirts and bedclothes, etc. These things add a veneer of reality in principle but are sadly superficial. There is no substitute for subtle and genuine character writing. Regardless, it’s got great performances, honest charm, and competently-handled dramatic beats that’ll hit you where it counts.