The latest faith-inspired Disney movie Clouds tells the story of Zach Sobiech, a high school student who wrote a song that went viral during his senior year, after finding out his cancer was terminal.
There’s no need for a spoiler alert: The movie is about a terminally-ill teenager, and even though it’s based on the book Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way, by Laura Sobiech, the answer Zach’s mother refers to is not a cure for cancer.
That “miracle” was the ability to see that, as she told Crux, “we’re all pilgrimages in life, and we all have those moments when we have to decide if we’re going to believe [in God] or not.”
“And I love the miracle the movie provides, where we can see what the miracle our family experienced when visiting the Marian shrine of Lourdes, in France was: It wasn’t the typical thing we think of when going there,” Sobiech said in a phone interview earlier this month. “God used our pilgrimage in a different way, something unexpected happened to us, and that’s the message of the movie too: it can be a moment of healing.”
The family’s trip to Lourdes, after it’s clear Zach’s cancer is terminal, was not a trip to find a cure, but to look for healing.
Among the tear-inducing scenes there is one that “really resonates” with Sobiech: When her character, played by Neve Campbell, is sitting down with Zach, played by Fin Argus, right after he’s asked by a professor to write a college essay.
In real life, she said, that was “the first time where he really let the fact that ‘I’m not going to be there for that’ sink.”
“That conversation happened, and as a mom, it was such a scary time,” she said. “As parents, we always assume that we’re going to have this wisdom to pass on to our children, and this was the line in the sand moment with Zach when he surpassed me. He was entering a territory I knew nothing about, because I wasn’t dying. I couldn’t tell him how to do this. It was one of those moments where, as a parent, you completely rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the words that we need to share with our kids.”
Clouds marks Justin Baldoni”s second feature film as a director, after the 2019 romantic-drama Five Feet Apart. Though readers might remember him as Rafael Solano on the hit drama Jane the Virgin.
Baldoni has been a part of the project for over 7 years: He was the man behind a documentary on the teenager, My Last Days, and the two became friends, a bit like a “little brother, big brother relationship,” the filmmaker told Crux.
“Before he died, I promised him I’d make sure the world knew his name, and that I would help him raise funds for his fund to end children’s cancer,” he said. “And when her mother wrote the memoir, I asked her if I could turn it into a movie.”
The director describes Zach as “unique,” in that he “represents so much of all of us: We all have things that we want to accomplish, and we have dreams that are never realized. And here he was, with limited time, showing us all how to do that.”
The teenager was “really simple in his approach to life, yet it was profoundly spiritual, and beautiful. He had a deep faith, a deep love, he treated people well. He had an incredible relationship with his girlfriend and with his best friend and writing partner. He had all of these things at 17 that I think we spend our lives trying to achieve. And then achieved stardom, thanks to a lot of people but also to his drive and sincerity. I think it’s a true underdog story. I think he’s all of us, and I wanted to make sure we all had the chance to see ourselves in him, or someone in his family, and have our lives affected and changed by it.”
Both Sobiech and Baldoni wanted for the movie to be spiritual, not hiding the family’s Catholic faith, which is featured when they all go to Lourdes, but also in the crucifix and religious art that is seen in the background, but not being too in-your-face about it.
For Sobiech, there are several scenes in the movie, available in the streaming platform Disney +, that “truly resonate” with her, including an argument her character has with Rob, her husband, in the deck of the family home.
“That’s the reality of what it means to live with suffering: It’s hard, it’s messy. And that’s one of the things I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from families who’ve experienced loss or maybe are battling cancer now, or some other thing. They feel heard in those moments.”
Part of her reason for sharing those moments, both in the memoir and in the movie, was for people to be able to see the struggle, the heartache, the fighting, the hurt and even the failures. She said it shows that despite the “messy, imperfect people, God can still use us in enormous ways to touch lives.”
That, in a nutshell, is what the movie aims to offer: The reminder that despite all of a person’s imperfections, struggles and challenges, God can still work wonders.
Both the Sobiech and Baldoni agreed.
The director didn’t have an opportunity to talk to Zach about what the trip to Lourdes meant for him, but he did discuss it with his mother, acknowledging it was a big moment in the memoir and also in the family’s story.
“In many ways, it’s where the true miracle happened,” Baldoni said. “It’s when Zach realized what he wanted to do with his time. It wasn’t where he was healed physically, but maybe spiritually healed. It’s when he realized that he wanted to write music in the time he had left. And we wanted to show that visually.”
The director took some creative license to show what happens when pilgrims visit Lourdes’ famous baths – Spoiler: there are no volunteers chanting prayers as one is submerged – but because he wanted to capture, in the movie’s limited time, “that spiritual, emotional, soulful part of Lourdes and the mystical healing part of it. We wanted for it to resonate with Catholics, but we also didn’t want for this to be a faith-based movie.”
“The Sobiech live their faith quietly, with their works,” said Baldoni, who practices the Baha’i faith.
“They’re very messy, and they’re proud of it. We wanted to reflect that they didn’t have it all figured out, that the osteosarcoma created a fracture in the marriage, that Zach didn’t have it all figured out, and that they all struggled with it and in that suffering, found faith.”
The Sobiech’s primary mission in continuing to share Zach’s story is to help raise funds to research child cancer: They’ve raised over two million dollars thus far.
But Laura said that the entire experience, back to when the song Clouds became viral, allowed her to “find hope and reason by seeing that as a family, we have been given a huge story to share and to shine a light on our faith, to see that God is using us, and that’s part of our mission, too.”