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Taken a face value, Justin Baldoni's Clouds has all the hallmarks of what you would expect from a "Disney movie." It's got young, good looking people telling a heartwarming true story that, while tragic, has an uplifting message to take home with you in the end. Throw in some radio-friendly music and a budding, or established, pop star, and you're good to go as far as House of Mouse entertainment goes. And, to be sure, Clouds, has all of that in spades. However, while it may look like a simple, Disney-fied version of reality, there's a maturity to be found in Clouds that is more than a bit surprising, but also quite welcome.
In 2013, a 17-year-old kid named Zach Sobiech went viral with a song called "Clouds," which put a positive spin of the singer's battle dealing with osteosarcoma, a form of cancer that, at the time song was recorded, Zach already knew would be fatal. The movie stars Fin Argus as Zach and tells the story of the last months of Zach's life as he juggles his diagnosis and his relationships with his parents (Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott), his best friend and songwriting partner, Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter), his new girlfriend, Amy (Madison Iseman), and his budding stardom as a viral internet sensation.
Clouds may be the most mature original movie on Disney+.
In recent years the subject matter of young people with terminal diseases who are also falling love has become so common it's basically its own genre. This isn't even director Justin Baldoni's first movie within that genre, having previously directed Five Feet Apart. However, Clouds has just a bit more weight to it than most other films that deal with this serious subject matter. While most of them leave the most unpleasant aspects of terminal illness out or ignore the inevitably sad conclusion of the story for as long as possible, with a focus instead on the budding romance, Clouds flips the script.
Here, the romance, and even the music, is the B-plot. Clouds never lets you lose yourself in the sweetness and forget what the story is really about. Because the ture story of Zach Sobiech will be known to many who watch Clouds, if only because they downloaded the song on iTunes once upon a time, there's no reason for the movie to hide anything. Where the story is ultimately going to end is laid out early on and that's the, well, cloud, that hangs over the rest of the film. Sometimes the conflict that arises from that inevitability is the point of the scene, and sometimes it's not, but it's always there.
But while Clouds doesn't shy away from the potentially depressing reality, there's still fun to be had. Fin Argus plays Zach with a charisma that's ever present, even when Zach is at his most exhausted. Watching him live out his musical dream is still fun to see, complete with a clearly intentional (since Tom Everett Scott is there) homage to That Thing You Do that will surely bring smiles to the faces of the audience. Of course, Clouds version of the scene is hampered slightly by the fact that the eponymous song just doesn't bop like "That Thing You Do." It can't be helped.
Clouds has its share of tropes, but it executes them well.
While Clouds may set itself apart from similar movies in a few ways, it still is a movie in the field of the "inspirational biopic," and in that regard it still covers all of the tropes that one would expect to find. It has the inspirational teacher who always has the right wise words to say at the right time. The parents who love their child but struggle to remain connected to each other. The dying hero who cuts himself off from relationships that are important to him in order to "protect" other people from the inevitable pain. Tropes become tropes because, more often then not, they tend to work, and in Clouds they tend to work well enough.
Occasionally, because the movie tries to keep a roughly accurate timeline, the movie jumps forward by a few months here and there, and sometimes that means important events happen off-screen. As a result, the audience needs to get caught up via expository dialogue scenes. It's awkward, and a little strange that some potentially important moments have been skipped over. This also results in some truncated character arcs for some of the supporting players. At various points we're introduced to Sammy's nervousness about performing in public and Zach's parents' struggles to be emotionally available to each other. And then these things seem to have been largely dealt with off-screen because by the end everything has been overcome, but without the steps in between that would make these stories more satisfying.
If you're looking for a good cry, Clouds will certainly get you there.
Clouds was originally set up at Warner Bros. and the fact that it was never really a "Disney movie" to begin with is a good thing for both the film and the platform. There's simply a lack of artifice here that you don't necessarily expect from Disney. Characters die in Disney movies all the time, but rarely do they sit down to plan their own funerals.
In the absolutely bananas reality that is 2020, we could probably all use an ultimately uplifting message in the middle of a dark period, and so Clouds certainly didn't pick a bad time to come along. And the fact you can watch it with the whole family together certainly doesn't hurt.