Currently streaming on Disney+ is the 2021
Christopher Award-winning feature film “Clouds,” based on
Laura Sobiech’s 2014 memoir “Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way.” The story centers around Laura’s teenage son, Zach, and his battle with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that especially affects young people.
Laura’s small prayer was for some higher purpose to be realized through Zach’s suffering. That prayer, shared in her memoir, was a plea that, “If Zach must die, please just let it be for something big…Just one soul changed forever.” In “Clouds,” the answer to that prayer evolves through Zach’s charismatic personality and his discovery of his vocation as a songwriter, and it evolves in the way their family and community rally around his indomitable spirit.
In one poignant scene revealing that spirit, Zach Sobiech, played by Fin Argus, stands before a bathroom mirror, preparing himself for an ordinary day as a high school senior. The Soul Stirrers’ “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” plays in the background as he brushes his teeth and puts on a shirt, wincing in pain due to the trauma of a recently collapsed lung. A massive scar from surgery on that lung cuts across his gaunt ribcage, and chemo has left him completely bald. Having just received a terminal diagnosis, he stares at himself in the mirror, trying to summon the courage to face the day. He slaps his face with both hands, as if to revive himself, and forces a wide smile that soon dissolves into a trembling stare, revealing sadness and fear, yet also toughness.
The following scene shows Zach and his friend Sammy, played by Sabrina Carpenter, making their way through the morning bustle of their school’s hallways. Zach chats with other students, offering a joke here, a word of encouragement there, until Sammy questions, “Running for office?”
“Just giving the people what they want,” Zach answers, foreshadowing the generosity that will mark the final months of his life. Within this endeavor to rise above his dire circumstances, Zach embraces a calling to create music with Sammy. “I guess I just feel like there’s this music in me and it wants to come out,” he tells her, initiating a collaboration that will galvanize their community and garner fame for Zach and Sammy.
The culmination of this collaboration is the hit song “Clouds,” which Zach writes as a dedication to another classmate, Amy Adamle, played by Madison Iseman. Despite their tragic circumstances, Zach and Amy fall in love, baring their feelings with a sense of urgency prompted by his terminal condition.
Zach’s suffering continually challenges him to enter deeper into a sacrificial love that is often manifested in moments of humor, which he is able to create in the most desperate situations. This sense of joy permeates the entire film and shows the resilience of the Sobiech family’s Catholic faith, which is demonstrated most overtly in a pilgrimage they take to Lourdes.
Humor abides even at Lourdes as Zach and his brother Sam, played by Dylan Everett, settle into a room adorned with religious imagery, and Sam declares, “It’s like a Catholic theme park.” This humor contrasts with the subtle yet profound change that occurs within Zach and his family in their visit to the healing waters, an experience that inspires Zach’s honest self-expression through his music.
Such contrasts define the film, as joyful moments alternate with gut-wrenching glimpses of Zach’s fight with cancer. Here the filmmakers pay tribute to the Sobiech family and to Zach’s fortitude, because they never allow those scenes of suffering to overshadow the beauty of their love for one another.
Zach realizes that God is calling him to be a fighter, but his concept of what it means to be a fighter evolves as he comes to understand the transcendent nature of his suffering. In a year he’s been told will be his last, Zach realizes so much about how he wants to live, painting a bittersweet picture that prompts viewers to contemplate how to fully embrace the gift of life.
For Zach, living life to its fullest involves the pursuit of some monumental dreams, in love, family and friendship, and in his music. Yet those pursuits are marked by moments of failure to fully realize those dreams. It is into this void of failure that the dream of Laura Sobiech, played by Neve Campbell, takes root and flourishes, offering surprises and demonstrating that failure is merely an opportunity for redemption for those who respond with the right kind of fighting spirit.