Actor turned director Justin Baldoni, best known for TV’s “Jane the Virgin,” has staked out a unique corner of filmdom as his behind-the-camera specialty.
Dude makes weepers. “Five Feet Apart” on the big screen, the doc- series “My Last Days,” and now “Clouds” — Baldoni’s the guy Hollywood turns to when teens are terminal.
“Clouds” is about the Minnesota kid who wrote and recorded a song about being down in the dumps “in this dark and lonely hole,” lamenting that he’ll “never get my chance,” but celebrating that special someone “there with a rope” to pull him out of his funk.
Zach Sobiech and his best friend recorded the song eight years ago, posted it on Youtube, and hundreds of millions of downloads later, he’s no longer with us, but the song is.
The movie is a messy, manipulative affair — about Zach (Fin Argus of TV’s “Total Eclipse”), his BFF Sammy (Disney singer/starlet Sabrina Carpenter of “Girl Meets World”), their songwriting and his osteosarcoma.
That’s the cancer that won’t go away, the one that twenty chemotherapy cycles can’t defeat, which happens in the first act.
Zach’s the chatty, bald kid at Stillwater High, thoughtful, always quick to joke about his illness, ready with a fill-in vamp at the school talent show (“I’m Sexy and I Know It”) when his singing buddy Sammy (Carpenter) gets stage fright.
His three siblings and his parents (Neve Campbell, Tom Everett Scott) try to cope, to wearily tamp down the grief that comes naturally after a struggle that’s drained them all.
“None of us are really promised tomorrow,” Mom offers, “we just sort of assume it.”
That girl (Madison Iseman) Zach’s sweet on at school, the one he had to stand up on their first date because he couldn’t breathe?
That teacher (Lil Rel Howery) who takes a special interest and has been guiding Zach’s class through their college admissions’ essays, reminding them they’ve got “One life to live, what’re you going to do with it?”
“I’m off chemo.”
“Is it because it worked, or…”
These scenes are touchingly played, with Iseman (“Jumanji”) just breaking your heart with the simple gesture of acting on one’s first instinct — a tearful hug.
The songs are sweetly pleasant folk-rock of the Jason Mraz (“I’m Yours”) variety, whose concert the kids go to early on. There’s also a smattering of Sam Cooke Gospel in the score.
But when I say “messy” and “manipulative,” I’m talking about things that take away from the story’s obvious connection to the heartstrings and the cast’s engagement with that.
The Catholic family tries for Mom’s idea of a Hail Mary — a trip to Lourdes, an immersion in the allegedly blessed “healing” waters.
Arguments erupt out of nowhere. One minute, Zach and Amy are fantasizing about having children together, the next he’s shoving her away. He starts fights over dinner — “Can you NOT look at me that way?”
That’s not unrealistic. Life isn’t always a neatly categorized Kubler-Ross “Five Stages of Grief (death and dying).” Parents try to find uplifting distractions for dying kids, the victim himself is unsure of what to do, to feel, grasping at and lashing out.
When the stakes are terminal, you’re trying to get *bucket list events in or to “leave a mark,” and that’s understandable.
But the film meanders between melodramatic meltdowns and coughing fits, dawdling before it finally gets around to The Song.
And that tune, dominating the third act, leads to every tiresome “Youtube hit” cliche, giving a film that lumbers along one last place to just drag.
Yes, the online success narrative really happened this time. But even the “Your song’s on the radio!” homage to “That Thing You Do” (Tom Everett Scott’s big break) plays flat and deflated here.
Efforts to give the narrative lighter moments feel as artificial and forced as Zach’s blow-ups.
The tears in “Clouds” are built in. But all this manipulation feels excessive, unnecessary padding for a story that needed a vigorous trimming to break your heart and uplift you as it does.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Cast: Fin Argus, Sabrina Carpenter, Madison Iseman, Lil Rel Howery, Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott
Credits: Directed by Justin Baldoni, script by Kara Holden, based on the book by Laura Sobiech. A Disney+ release.
Running time: 2:01