‘Clouds’ Spotlights Catholic Family’s Struggles With Teen’s Terminal Illness

‘Clouds’ Spotlights Catholic Family’s Struggles With Teen’s Terminal Illness

Author and mother of four Laura Sobiech discusses the new film depicting her son’s life and cultural impact — and the role of faith during trying times.
Josh Shepherd
By

In the same week America got to know the remarkable Midwestern Catholic family of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the biggest movie release this weekend spotlights another faith-driven Midwestern family.

Premiering today on Disney Plus, “Clouds” recounts the story of Zach Sobiech, one of four siblings raised in a Catholic home in Lakeland, Minnesota. After being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, the teenager is determined to live out his dreams no matter how long he has left.

Director Justin Baldoni (“Five Feet Apart”) helms the biopic, after having produced a documentary about Zach’s journey for his “My Last Days” online series. “I can’t think of a better time than right now to release a movie like this,” said Baldoni in a recent interview. “It gives people a chance to meet Zach, hear his music, and see the choices he made when he went through it.”

Based on the memoir of Zach’s mother Laura Sobiech, “Clouds” highlights Christian faith in a way rarely seen in Disney films. “One of my prayers throughout this whole experience has been: ‘Lord, you open doors and we’ll walk through them,’” she said in a phone interview. “That is very much what has happened.”

Upon learning of his terminal diagnosis, Zach took up songwriting and quickly achieved cultural impact — including a No. 1 hit iTunes single in 2013. A-list actors and artists took notice. Bryan Cranston, The Lumineers, and Jason Mraz (among others) boosted the song and gave tribute to Zach.

As a consultant on the script, Laura worked to ensure it reflected reality rather than make their journey seem unattainable. “I want people to see that our lives are messy,” she said. “We didn’t do things perfectly. We fought. We wrestled. Despite us, God chose to use our family and Zach’s story in this amazing way.”

Finding Connection During Unyielding Stress

For Sobiech, it felt surreal to travel from her small hometown — on a major studio’s dime — to the movie shoot in Montreal, Canada. Before filming, actors assembled for the first time for a table read of the script grounded in her memoir.

Hollywood stars with significant past credits sat around the conference room table: Neve Campbell (“Scream” franchise) portrays Laura, Tom Everett Scott (“That Thing You Do”) her husband Rob, Fin Argus (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) their son Zach, and Sabrina Carpenter (“Adventures in Babysitting”) his best friend.

Their run-through of the draft script revealed a pivotal part of the story did not resonate. “The scene where Rob and I are arguing on the deck of the house, it just didn’t ring true,” said Laura Sobiech. “It wasn’t anything near what we would have said.” After the table read, director Baldoni huddled up with Campbell, Scott, and screenplay writer Kara Holden, all discussing how that scene between husband and wife needed work.

As a mother of four, Sobiech is used to speaking up when situations require it. “I just kind of butted in and said, ‘Well, do you want to know what we were really fighting about?’ They all looked at me and said: ‘Yeah, we do!’” she recounted.

Sobiech spent the afternoon guiding Holden as she rewrote the scene, with input from the actors. From years of personal experience, the Minnesota author said it was vital to knock down the assumption that caregivers usually choose to lean on one another.

“You’ve got two very fragile people going through a really hard thing,” she said. “When you know you are both going through the same emotions, you don’t want to burden your spouse with the heaviness you’re feeling. You end up sort of closing off and carrying it all by yourself, and you have to figure out a path back to each other.”

The Spirit and the Flesh

Following Zach’s diagnosis, the film depicts how the Catholic family sought divine intervention for his healing in addition to medical treatment. Thanks to an acquaintance who paid their way, the Sobiechs traveled to the world’s most famous healing shrine in Lourdes, France.

“Even then, I thought: We don’t really need to go to France to get a miracle,” recalled Sobiech. “We wrestled with what to expect. What are we really looking for? Are we setting ourselves up? What’s the purpose of this?”

A pilgrimage to Europe provided needed respite for the close-knit family facing trauma. “Lourdes is like coming in from a freezing cold blizzard into a warm, cozy house and getting wrapped in a blanket,” she said. “For us, it was this tranquil, peace-filled place to retreat.”

Nothing evidently supernatural occurred. Yet scenes at Lourdes are presented with remarkable reverence for a mainstream film, seeming to show some bigger story unfolding. “I did ask God to physically heal Zach,” said Sobiech. “But I also asked for his grace, that his hand would carry us through whatever would happen. And I think that was the answer we received.”

While viewers see their spirits were willing, realities of the flesh are also close at hand. The film earns its PG-13 rating through an F-bomb yelled by an exasperated parent and a romantic scene between teenagers. The faith-guided mother is sensitive to how families with young kids are vigilant about content even in an inspirational movie.

“Certainly if that’s not something you want your children to see, then they shouldn’t see it,” said Sobiech. “The scene ends before it gets too steamy, and it doesn’t go where one might think. That’s part of the teenage experience. It shows that Zach, a 17-year-old boy who was dying, was real.”

The Silver Lining of ‘Clouds’

One of few original films released thus far on Disney Plus, “Clouds” fits alongside their library of true-life biopics. His mom noted Zach “loved the spirit of Disney movies” their family watched together. “‘Remember the Titans’ was one of his favorites,” said Sobiech. “Especially at a time like this, it’s important to find something that’s uplifting.”

His legacy lives on in his music and other tangible ways. As of this week, the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund has raised more than $2 million to research better treatments and even a cure for the rare bone cancer.

“This story is about hope and love,” said director Justin Baldoni. “But as much as we want to touch peoples’ lives, we want to freakin’ end and find a cure for osteosarcoma and children’s cancer. Because we don’t need to lose another bright soul.”

Active in their community while still busy raising kids and now one grandchild, Laura and Rob Sobiech consider it providential the film is releasing during this contentious season. “I hope it does the same thing as Zach’s song ‘Clouds,’” she said, “Which is to inspire people to think about the deep things in life and leave them feeling hopeful.”

Based on the memoir by Laura Sobiech, “Clouds” premieres today on Disney Plus.

Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy for several media outlets including The Stream. His articles have appeared in The Daily Signal, The Christian Post, Boundless, Providence Magazine, and Christian Headlines. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area.

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