Monday, November 23, 2020
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Disney+ With Its Head In The Clouds

From “Onward” to “Mulan,” and now, “Clouds,” Disney+ continues to supply its viewers with new material to fill the long hours of quarantine. This new film release is an interpretation of the life of Zach Sobiech, played by Fin Argus, who started writing music after he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 14. He is joined in his musical endeavors by his best friend, Sammy Brown, played by Sabrina Carpenter. 

While other movies have dealt with the serious subject of cancer, “Clouds” manages to achieve a more authentic tone to the daily hardships cancer patients face. There is never a moment where the audience can forget about what Zach is facing. One scene simply depicts Zach brushing his teeth, which is suddenly juxtaposed to a scene of him throwing up. This can be expected after 20 rounds of chemotherapy, but the viewer is still thrown off by this sudden example of common cancer symptoms. While other films featuring cancer encourage the idea that patients are able to have normal experiences, “Clouds” reminds audience members that any subjectively normal experience Zach has is overshadowed by his sickness. 

By opening the film with focused shots of his bald head and crutches, his life is depicted as handicapped Director Justin Baldoni is known for accomplishing a more realistic look of teenagers dealing with illness. He had done this with another movie, “Five Feet Apart,” but while the focus there was finding love, “Clouds” directs more attention to how Zach faces the gravity of his situation. He is able to see it realistically, with humor to balance out the bleakness. 

Argus does an excellent job of delivering a charismatic and moving performance, while also being dynamic enough to hint at a growing nihilistic attitude about his diagnosis. He will do a little jig in a situation where others would be nervous, as if to physically shake off the awkwardness. He also has a way of subtly gesturing to his IV or crutches to reference his illness in a comical yet disheartening way, as if wordlessly asking why anyone would want to be with him when he comes with so many strings attached. As the movie goes on, he starts to ask himself, “What’s the point?” and pulls away from loved ones because he doesn’t want to hurt them. He lies awake watching and listening to a ticking clock and looking at the time, as if he can feel his life starting to slip away. It is then that he starts to open up again through his music. 

Zach’s appeal to music is clear from the beginning, making music an important factor in the film itself. The carefully-selected soundtrack by Baldoni plays with irony on occasion, like playing “Jesus Build a Fence Around Me” after Zach learns he is about to die. There is, of course, some of the music from the real-life group “A Firm Handshake,” which is the group Zach Sobiech and Sammy Brown formed. Their film counterparts emulate the singing styles of the original performers as closely as they can. 

When Zach and Sammy are playing around, Baldoni starts with an innocuous tune called “Blueberries,” which makes the actors and, no doubt, the audience smile. By lightening the mood in the hospital this creates a touching ambiance. Then, a song on the more religious side, “How to go to Confession,” plays after Zach’s mother hopes for a miracle from God. “Sandcastles,” the song featuring the weakest structure imaginable, comes on at the end when Zach is at his most vulnerable. 

 Carpenter and Argus have believable chemistry as a pair with an unbreakable bond.  Argus as Zach finishes song lyrics from Sammy just as though they were finishing each other’s sentences. Zach teases Sammy affectionately throughout the movie, with Sammy coming up with a few quips herself. Their comfortable attitudes towards each other are shown through scenes such as when they are walking down the hall and they playfully look and poke at each other in an organic way. 

Later, while feeling down, Zach looks out his window and sees a heaven-like view of the clouds. This imagery is the inspiration for his viral song “Clouds.” This time, he doesn’t handle his excitement carefully, but finally allows himself to feel unmitigated joy. He and Sammy are invited to play at the Metropolitan, which Zach and his parents treat as a birthday party/prom for him to enjoy. But before the performance, gray clouds rumble with thunder in the sky, foreshadowing the misfortune on its way.

The movie ends with Zach’s family and friends taking a picture after he has passed away, and the clouds behind them return to white, as if to say that life goes on. Then, it cuts to the real photograph, which includes the same clouds in the sky. The movie does this to convey how important it is to notice the little wonders surrounding us. As small as they may seem, everyday miracles are there, from a person with cancer becoming a famous singer-songwriter to a serendipitous cloud being in the right place at the right time.

Disney+ approached this project with hope in mind to raise positivity in trying times. It is reminiscent of themes we find ourselves in today, with new challenges incessantly heading our way through COVID and messy politics. Seeing Zach’s bright outlook on his situation becomes all the more inspiring. By treating each part of his life as precious, it encourages viewers to do the same. It does not become necessary to wait to start living, as Zach writes in his final essay. The cast and crew came together to make such a stirring interpretation of the true story, which was already an inspiration. 

Lucia Arreola is a Staff Writer. She can be reached at arreoll1@uci.edu.