Among the many things one can complain about these days, a lack of movies about (gorgeous) sick teens wanting to bring meaning into the remainder of their lives is not one of them. A Walk to Remember kicked off the genre into the mainstream, and was then followed by the likes of, Everything, Everything, blockbuster romance The Fault in Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, The Sky Is Pink – and these are just the successful ones. So naturally, when the trailer for Clouds dropped, you may be excused for internally screaming “Not another one!” and going back to watch another episode of Schitt’s Creek.
On the surface, the film follows all the genre rules too. Loving parents growing apart because they cope differently? Check. The love interest that has to deal with the reality of no future for their relationship? Present. Grand gestures interrupted by sudden collapses? Here in spades. Emotional moment where the lead gets a deep desire fulfilled? Done and done.
But why then, knowing all this, did I have several lumps in my throat at the end credits?
Firstly, there’s the added emotional weight of the film being based on a true story. Zach Sobiek was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (a rare form of bone cancer) when he was 14, and underwent about 24 rounds of chemotherapy before he was declared terminal at 17. He was given mere months to live. Based on his mother Laura’s book ‘Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way’, the film begins several years after his initial diagnosis and follows Zach’s journey towards releasing his viral song ‘Clouds’.
Fin Argus’ Zach is stoic, but not bitter. He knows his time is coming, and does not want to take it for granted one bit, and everyone around him is on a mission to make his desires happen. A central character is Zach’s love interest Amy Adamle (Madison Iseman), who chooses to stay with him despite knowing about his diagnosis. Although the two make for a passable lovey-dovey pair coming to terms with the inevitable end of their time together, the clearly superior dynamic in the film is between Zach and his best friend and fellow songwriter Sammy Brown.
Played by an understated but charming Sabrina Carpenter, Sammy and Zach share an easy chemistry with just the occasional glimpses into how deep their bond actually is. Neve Campbell (from the Scream movies) and Tom Everett Scott play Zach’s parents with quiet grit and despair, with the film wisely choosing not to tie their simmering tensions into a neat bow at the end. Other characters include brief glimpses of Zach’s siblings, Sam, Alli and Grace, as well as the ‘cool adult’ quota filled by Lil Rel Howery playing Zach’s teacher Milton (because of course that’s his name), who speaks almost exclusively in inspiring quotes.
The soundtrack is your average YA pop soundtrack, lit up from time to time with Zach and Sammy’s original songs. ‘Clouds’ especially is definitely going at the top of my playlist for a while.
Of course, the film has its flaws. At two hours of runtime, the story does feel overstretched from what seems to be unnecessary efforts to up the emotional quotient. Sappy dialogues are shoved in random places to provide inspiration for songs later, and the film could have done well with about half the number of positive quotes thrown around.
What lifts Clouds above the formulaic though, is director Justin Baldoni’s obvious passion for Zach’s story, which shines brightly through the entire film. The subject is not new for Baldoni, who directed Five Feet Apart last year and more importantly, has based Clouds on Zach’s 2013 documentary that he helmed himself. For twice as much emotional impact with only about one fourth of the screen time, I would highly recommend watching Baldoni’s original documentary on the Soul Pancake channel instead. Unrelated, but it also blew my mind to realise Soul Pancake is run by Rainn Wilson.
Clouds is not your typical romantic film, but it is definitely a film about love: familial love, maturely handled love triangles, positive female friendships, and the love that Zach exuded to everyone around him. For someone so focused on making people happy, it is ironic that his story would bring so many to tears.
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With solid performances and genuine heart at its center, Clouds flies a little higher than most sick-teen YA movies.
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