You have to hand it to “Clouds,” the latest wholesome YA drama to premiere on the Disney Plus platform: There has never been, and probably never will be, another teen movie to pay such repeated tribute to Mary Oliver. A line from the late American poet’s “The Summer Day” — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” — is quoted multiple times in director Justin Baldoni’s sweet, smoothed-over biopic of teenage singer-songwriter Zach Sobiech, who died aged 18 of cancer, shortly after scoring the viral folk-pop hit that lends the film its title. The resonance of Oliver’s words is obvious, but effective.
Then again, “Clouds” also gets misty-eyed over the lyrics to Jason Mraz’s twee 2008 smash “I’m Yours:” It’s not a film that especially distinguishes between the sublime and the stickily sentimental, but in that respect, it feels true to the spirit of many a teenage romantic. Very occasionally, Baldoni’s filmmaking itself merges the two. If it largely unfolds in the cute, cushioned fashion you’d expect given the Disney stamp (even if, to be precise, the company took it off the hands of Warner Bros.), the odd moment of elegant emotional truth sometimes dissolves the sugar. It’s altogether a more restrained affair than it might have been, particularly since its source material — a memoir by Sobiech’s mother Laura titled “Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way” — could have lent itself to the most cloying kind of faith-based treatment.
As it is, Christianity is a neutral background presence in Baldoni’s and screenwriter Kara Holden’s interpretation of the Sobiechs’ story. Crucifixes are glimpsed on walls, but never explicitly addressed. A whimsical family trip to Lourdes for the terminally diagnosed Zach to sample its allegedly healing waters is wryly depicted: more a symbolic bonding experience than a full investment of religious hope. Instead, “Clouds” pushes a less specific, more inclusive faith in the human spirit — not to achieve miracles but, in the words of its hero, “to make people happy, as much as I can for as long as I can.” Baldoni, who previously helmed both a Sobiech-focused documentary short and the cystic fibrosis tearjerker “Five Feet Apart,” knows his terrain several times over here: With the help of his cast and Ben Kutchin’s warm, tactile lensing, he makes such sentiments more moving than mechanical.
As likably played by actor-musician Fin Argus in his first credited feature role, Zach is stoic but not dour: After 24 rounds of chemotherapy for osteosarcoma, he’s held onto a surprisingly peppy sense of humor, but has also earned some grace for those moments when he brattishly snaps. We’re introduced to him toward the end of his senior year, still optimistic that his most recent treatment has secured him a future, one that includes college, a musical partnership with his lifelong best friend Sammy (a winsome Sabrina Carpenter) and hopefully a first romance with classroom crush Amy (Madison Iseman). His body has other ideas: As the cancer spreads to his lungs, doctors declare him unlikely to see out high school.
How, then, to complete a wild and precious life in just a few months? Zach sets about it in several ways, some achievable for most teens — he asks Amy out, she accepts — and some that would seem strictly in the realm of Disney Plus fantasy if they didn’t happen to be true. He and Sammy sign a songwriting contract with BMI; shortly afterwards, his simultaneously upbeat and melancholic ditty “Clouds” becomes a word-of-mouth sensation, getting radio airplay and topping the iTunes charts.
Its infectious bouncing-ball melody resurfaces multiple times in the film’s increasingly weepy final act. Zach’s songwriting and Baldoni’s storytelling are well-matched in their smiling-through-the-tears gentleness and emotional simplicity. At under three minutes, “Clouds” the song is short and touching; at a hair over two hours, “Clouds” the film, while likewise heavy on the heartstrings, winds up feeling a bit overstretched. As written here, Zach’s on-off courtship of Amy feels imported from a more generic, less truthful mall movie — all clever promposals and dewy heart-to-hearts in golden-hour fields — and stalls proceedings whenever it’s the focus.
His friendship with Sammy, complicated with unspoken feelings and fears, is more authentic and affecting, thanks in large part to Argus and Carpenter’s chill, breezy rapport on screen. Zach’s family relations, meanwhile, are mostly drawn in broad, faint strokes. His three siblings aren’t very distinctively characterized, while the marital problems of his parents (well played within narrow bounds by Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott) simmer politely under the homey surface of things, occasionally flaring up to offer glimpses of what an adult-oriented telling of this unhappy story might look like.
These stray moments of domestic discontent make for some of the best scenes in “Clouds,” cutting through its cotton-wool comforts. In one, Zach’s sister faces down her quiet terror of visiting him on his deathbed; in another, his parents argue frankly on the porch about how they’ve barely looked at each other since their son’s cancer consumed their lives. You expect it to end in a cathartic embrace, but instead, one skulks back indoors while the other heaves out sobs into the freezing night. You could wish for “Clouds” to get harder like this more often, but its overall softness suits its subject: a brave, smart kid who wrote a pop song about dying, not as an end but as an ascent, “to where the view’s a little nicer.” It’s not Mary Oliver, but it’s pleasing all the same.