Actor turned director Justin Baldoni must really have a thing for the love lives of terminally ill teens, which have been the subject of both of his feature films thus far. After making his directorial debut with the 2019 weepie Five Feet Apart, about a romance between two teens with cystic fibrosis, Baldoni returns with the tearjerker Clouds, this one based on a true story. The doomed teen here is Zach Sobiech (Fin Argus), a 17-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter suffering from terminal cancer. Despite his diagnosis, Zach is upbeat and friendly, one of the most popular kids at his Minnesota high school, and all he wants is to make music with his best friend Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter) and hang out with his girlfriend Amy (Madison Iseman).
The first half of the movie focuses more on romance, as Zach builds up the courage to ask Amy out, and their relationship quickly develops with typical teenage intensity, amplified by Zach’s limited time to live. The idea of entering into a romance knowing that the other person is about to die carries plenty of potential for dark and complex emotions, but this is a Disney+ original, so it just focuses on picnics and PG-rated make-out sessions. There’s also a bit of a love triangle, although after Sammy declares her obvious love for Zach, the movie just barrels ahead as if nothing had happened, and there’s never any hint that Zach might do anything more with Sammy than play music.
It’s the duo’s music that drives the second half, after Zach tells Sammy that his final wish is to record an album of their original songs. They create YouTube videos for some of their compositions, and the movie’s title track becomes a viral hit, attracting media attention and eventually landing them a record contract of some kind (although the movie leaves that part a little vague). In reality, “Clouds” hit the top of the iTunes charts in 2013 and has been adopted as a sort of inspirational anthem. It’s a sweet story that Baldoni previously captured in an episode of his documentary series My Last Days, and a 22-minute documentary seems like the proper format to tell this story, rather than dragging it out into a narrative feature film.
Although it’s based on a memoir by Zach’s mother Laura Sobiech (played in the movie by Neve Campbell), Clouds follows a predictable cancer melodrama formula, and it presents Zach as a such a saintly, self-sacrificing creative genius that it’s hard to believe he was actually a real person. The highlight of Zach’s young life, early in the movie, is the chance to attend a Jason Mraz concert with Sammy and Amy (Mraz dutifully appears as himself), and Clouds (both the movie and the song) has the bland, inoffensive and generically inspirational tone of Mraz’s music. It’s the movie equivalent of a “Live Laugh Love” poster, and Baldoni goes for the easy sentiment whenever possible.
Carpenter, a pop singer and onetime Disney Channel star who’s shown dramatic range in indie films like The Short History of the Long Road, brings a tiny bit of grit to Sammy, but former model Argus doesn’t give Zach a personality beyond beatific likability. Zach’s family members exist primarily to be supportive, although Campbell and Tom Everett Scott as his parents get to have exactly one fight, which is completely resolved by the next scene.
It’s nice that the real Zach Sobiech got the chance to share his music with the world before he died, and it’s nice that some people find his songs comforting. But timid niceness is all that Clouds has to offer for two hours, and its sanitized view of illness and death (Zach retains his sunny personality and Argus’ model good looks all the way to the end) is as unconvincing as a Jason Mraz rip-off song written by a teenager.