How do you make a fact-based drama about a terminally-ill teenager that negotiates the space between tearful sentimentality and forced uplift? That’s a thin line to walk, one that requires respect for the story’s subject and respect for the audience. If it all feels too much like gross manipulation, you haven’t done a real person’s real experience any favors. Clouds (releasing exclusively on Disney+ starting October 16) seeks to balance painfully raw emotion while also giving a hopeful insight to taking advantage of the time allotted in life.

Director Justin Baldoni might have felt even more pressure while making Clouds, since he became close with Zach Sobiech and his family while making a short documentary about him in 2013. It feels like that familiarity allowed Baldoni and screenwriter Kara Holden to tell a story that permits Zach to emerge as fully human—not just an inspirational icon, but a kid wrestling with anger, with his need to be strong for others, and with the sense that the time left to him was not enough.

Fin Argus plays Zach in a narrative that opens at the beginning of his senior year in high school. Already deep into his treatment for osteosarcoma, Zach is looking forward to his cancer being in remission—until an emergency surgery reveals that the cancer has spread, likely leaving him with less than a year to live.

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The story that follows certainly focuses on the events that brought national attention to the real Zach Sobiech: songs written and performed with his best friend, Sammy (Sabrina Carpenter), and posted to YouTube, leading to a recording contract and the hit song that gives the film its title. But it’s also ambitious in trying to do justice to several different relationships: between Zach and Sammy; between Zach and his girlfriend, Amy (Madison Iseman); between Zach and his mother, Laura (Neve Campbell); and between Laura and Zach’s father, Rob (Tom Everett Scott). On the whole, Clouds gives all of those connections a chance to recognize how grieving a life that’s still ongoing isn’t an easy process.

It’s also important to note that Clouds isn’t merely a tear-jerker, though it’s absolutely successful at jerking quite a few tears. The balance comes from the way Baldoni drops in telling details about Zach’s own feelings, like a terrific scene in which Zach—only just recently informed of his terminal diagnosis—practices a smile in the mirror that suggests everything is fine, except that the smile drifts into something tight and terrified. Argus’s performance is impressive physically in conveying a kid fighting for his life, but also emotionally at showing how the reality of Zach’s situation erupts into the front of his mind at unexpected moments.

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Baldoni finds enough opportunities to be playful that Clouds doesn’t come off like a movie wallowing in pathos; it’s a particularly nice nod to co-star Tom Everett Scott that the scene in which everyone first hears “Clouds” on the radio is staged much like a similar scene in That Thing You Do! Getting a sense of the entirety of Zach’s experience, from joy to despair, is part of what allows the film to feel like it earns all of its emotions. It’s a much better tribute to Zach Sobiech that Clouds isn’t just a movie about a teenager who’s dying, but a movie about a teenager who’s living.

Clouds will be available for streaming exclusively on Disney+ starting October 16.


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Scott Renshaw is Arts & Entertainment Editor at Salt Lake City Weekly, and author of the book Happy Place: Living the Disney Parks Life, available from Theme Park Press.