Bald ain’t beautiful. Zach Sobiech, a high school junior with a cranium as smooth as a cueball, knows it.
But bald is bold, and that’s almost as good.
It’s not like Zach could hide it. Everyone in school knew he suffered from cancer, and 20 rounds of chemotherapy isn’t good for anyone’s hairline. But he both rocks the do and makes do as well as anyone can—joking with his classmates, hanging with his friends and, when his BFF Sammy gets stagefright during the school talent show, taking the stage instead.
Sammy has “slightly more hair than me,” he admits to the talent show audience, taking off his knit cap and holding his guitar. And then he dives into a self-mocking version of “Sexy and I Know It” as the crowd hoots in appreciation.
Zach’s mother purses her lips as she watches him dance on stage. “That was an interesting song choice,” she says later. Zach tells her the song was just “fun.” And Zach deserves a little fun. He’s about done with chemo, after all. He’ll get his hair back, plan for college, perhaps finally ask pretty Amy Adamle out.
And so he does.
But on the day of the date, Zach starts coughing. He insists it’s nothing, but Mom fears otherwise. She whisks him off to the hospital to discover that one of his lungs has collapsed.
The news gets worse. An operation reveals that Zach’s cancer hasn’t been shrinking after all: It’s grown, and it has leapfrogged to Zach’s lungs.
Yes, Zach can stop chemo. But it’s for the worst of reasons: It isn’t going to do him any good. The 17-year-old musician is dying. Doctors give him, at most, 10 months to live.
A terminal diagnosis would be tough on anybody, but for one so young? So talented? With so much to live for? You might understand if the guy stopped even trying.
But as Zach’s hair grows back, he realizes something: Bald isn’t beautiful, but being bold is. And whether he has 10 days or 10 months, Zach is going to live as boldly as he knows how.
He might even write—and sing—a song or two.
“I just want to make people happy,” Zach says, and it’s true enough. Most of his interactions seemed designed to deflect any worry or grief, to turn even the most serious moments into a joke, to help people smile—even laugh. And most of the time it works. He comforts those who need comfort; he shows them his own strength when they could use a little themselves; and he helps them find just a little happiness even in the midst of his bleak prognosis.
But Sammy, his best friend since they were both children, knows that Zach’s desire to make people smile comes at a cost—both to the teen himself, and to the friends and family who’re hurting and grieving with him. There’s a place for laughter, but there’s a place for honesty, too—no matter how sad or painful that honesty might be.
Throughout Zach’s progressing illness, his friends and family rally around him and support him as much as they can. His family tries to keep the home environment as normal as possible, but not without giving Zach a special treat or two along the way.
Mr. Weaver, one of Zach’s teachers, encourages him to explore his musical ambitions with whatever time Zach has left. “There’s so much in there that the world needs to hear,” he tells him. Sammy is one of Zach’s most constant companions—just like she has been for years. And Amy—whom Zach does begin to date—doesn’t shy away from the painful reality of their relationship’s future. She serves as both Zach’s rock and his muse, giving him a strange undercurrent of optimism in spite of everything.
Clouds is based on a true story, and the real Zach Sobiech spent a number of years attending a Catholic school. His mother, Laura, wrote a memoir about Zach titled Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way.
Given that backdrop, the film seems to downplay the family’s faith a bit. But those convictions still shine through.
We see their faith most obviously in the Sobiech’s family trip to Lourdes, France, where the faithful have traveled to bathe in its supposedly miraculous waters since 1858. In the film, Laura sees footage from Lourdes on YouTube and insists that the family go. Once there, Zach and his brother share a room, graced with a statue of the Virgin Mary: They both talk about how creepy it is that it seems to stare at them, and Zach’s college-age bro jokes, “I’m surprised I haven’t burst into flames yet.”
The trip to the waters themselves seems to echo a sort of baptism. Both Zach and his mother are taken into chamber and dunked in the holy water as attendants hum and sing. Laura cries as she stands in front of another small statue of Mary and as she’s being submerged; Zach’s more stoic, but the film likely uses the scene as a cue that Zach was, in a sense, “born again,” determined afterward to live his short life to the fullest.
Crosses hang in both Zach’s and Sammy’s respective houses, and Amy has a cross on her nightstand. When Zach’s dad brings home a special gift for him, Zach exclaims, “Did I just like die and go to heaven?” When asked what he’d like his funeral would be like, Zach says he doesn’t want Psalm 23 read. “It’s overdone,” he insists. But he does want the parable of the talents read aloud. “That [parable] makes sense to me,” he says.
“Clouds,” a song that Zach writes (and which the movie is obviously named for), subtly speaks of a happy afterlife: “We’ll go up, up, up/But I’ll fly a little higher/Go up in the clouds/because the view’s a little nicer.” A song written and sung by Sammy is titled, “How to Go to Confession,” obviously an allusion to the sacrament. We hear an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace,” and some other songs have a few spiritually tinged lyrics as well.
“Amy Adamle, I would marry you today if I could,” Zach tells her. They both solemnly say “I do” just a moment later, suggesting they’re making a real (if unofficial) marriage-like commitment to one another.
The two indeed engage in as much (ahem) marriage-like activity as they can, and as Zach’s sickness allows. They fall asleep on Zach’s bed shortly after that commitment, and Zach’s mother allows them to stay in that room all night. (His scandalized sisters are appalled, doubting Zach’s later insistence that nothing happened.) Sometime later, Zach visits Amy in her room, and they seem determined to engage in some physical intimacy. Amy takes off her sweater (revealing a shirt underneath) and Zach takes off his shirt (revealing the scars from his treatment) before the intimate moment is cut short as Zach begins hyperventilating. The couple kisses frequently, and Amy kisses one of Zach’s scars.
Zach talks with his father, Rob, about his feelings for Amy, telling him that he can’t even seem to breathe (metaphorically speaking) without her. When Zach asks Rob whether he feels the same way about Laura, Rob hesitates. “We love each other very much,” he says. But he adds that “As you get older, things pile up. And other things get in the way.” Afterward, Rob and Laura fight, with Laura telling her husband that he’s barely looked at her since Zach got sick. (They later kiss, suggesting all is now well.)
We learn that someone else is interested in Zach, too, but that attraction goes unrequited. Zach’s “Sexy and I Know It” routine includes some gyrating hips and some of the song’s risque lines. Amy jokes with Zach about coming home from France wearing nothing more than a cigarette—telling him that “things could get interesting.” (She also slyly asks when they should start trying to have children.) We see some guys dressed as cheerleaders during a high school talent show. Zach and his mother are both wrapped in towels during their respective submersions in Lourdes.
A car, driven way too fast on icy roads, spins out of control. Zach sometimes struggles to get his breath, which causes him to literally fall to his knees once or twice.
Despite being on Disney+, we hear one or perhaps two somewhat indistinct f-words. Their inclusion feels even more mystifying, given that the rest of the profanity count is pretty light. We hear just one use of “crap” and a couple more “sucks” in the mix, along with three misuses of God’s name.
Zach and Amy joke about Zach smoking cigarettes when he returns from France.
Zach vomits twice in a toilet (more heard than seen). He and Sammy talk about how they’ve been friends for so long they had their diapers changed together.
“You’ve wiped your boogers on me,” Zach says.
“That’s been, like, weeks,” Sammy jokes back.
But Zach isn’t always so chipper. Sometimes his grave prognosis causes him to lash out at people, even pushing them away in a misguided attempt to keep them from getting hurt.
“What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mr. Weaver asks his class, assigning them an essay they can submit to colleges. For Zach, initially, the words sound sad and shrill.
“What’s the point of writing a college essay when I’m never going to even make it to college?” he asks his mom later. Laura acknowledges that Zach’s life has taken a terrible turn for both of them. But she suggests, haltingly, that in the midst of Zach’s apparently abbreviated future, perhaps there’s a gift in it, too—a chance to truly shed the superficiality that so many of us get so caught up with and live life as it should be lived.
“None of us are really promised tomorrow,” she says. “We all just assume it’s going to be there.” And when that assumption is gone, Laura suggests, life can perhaps become fuller. More glorious.
As I mentioned earlier, Clouds is based on a true story. The real Zach Sobiech died May 20, 2013 at the age of 18. But he left behind loving friends, family and a powerful legacy. His song “Clouds” became an internet sensation; it was eventually being streamed and downloaded 200 million times. And the charity he began, The Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, has raised more than $2 million for children suffering the same form of cancer that he did.
The film is sincere, sweet and, at times, deeply moving. And its subtle spiritual undertones and strong core message—live life boldly, because every day is a gift—should not be overlooked.
That said, we can’t overlook some of the movie’s more problematic elements, either. Zach’s and Amy’s surprisingly physical relationship might be true to life and, for some families, navigable. The inclusion of one or two harsh profanities feels stranger and more disappointing.
For some families, either of those issues might be enough to make this movie, unfortunately, a no-go. But for families that choose to engage this bittersweet story, Clouds comes with a whale of a silver lining.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.