Director Justin Baldoni believes in using his platform to tell stories that matter. So after spending time with Zach Sobiech, a teenage musician living with terminal bone cancer, Baldoni knew God wanted him to share Zach's story with the world.
“I think that there are these moments in our lives where you can feel, even at the moment, that there's something bigger happening,” Baldoni told The Christian Post, describing his experiences being around Zach, his mother, Laura, and the rest of his family back in 2013.
“I think that's how God works. He puts you in places, so long as you're open and you're receptive to it, that you don't know why you're there, but you know you're there for a reason that's bigger than you.”
Fast forward seven years and Zach’s inspiring — and sometimes heartbreaking — story is now a major motion picture titled “Clouds,” hitting the streaming platform Disney+ on Oct. 16.
Zach was 14 when he was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. Knowing his time was limited, the Minnesota teen fulfilled his dream and recorded the farewell song Clouds in December 2012. Zach lived to see his song become an unexpected worldwide sensation before he died in 2013, just 17 days after his 18th birthday.
“Clouds” (rated PG-13 for brief strong language), named after the viral song, is directed by Baldoni and stars Neve Campbell as Laura, Fin Argus as Zach, and Sabrina Carpenter as his best friend and songwriting partner, Sammy. The film focuses on Zach’s musical ambitions as well as his relationships with his family, friends, and then-girlfriend, Amy.
Baldoni, who first told Zach’s story in the 2013 series, "My Last Days," told CP that the time he spent with the Sobiech family changed his life, from the way he approaches his marriage to how he chooses to use his platform. Zach’s perspective on love, life, and faith, the director said, far surpassed his 17 years.
“I think about things differently,” Baldoni, who practices the Bahá’í religion, said. “[Zach] distilled teachings from the Bible in such simple ways. ... Zach was someone who always looked for the good in people. ... And if somebody was saying something negative about someone, he could chime in and say something positive. That was his heart. How does that not change you, when you see a 17-year-old living the way you kind of know you should be?”
Laura, who was heavily involved in the making of “Clouds,” shared her family’s story in the 2014 memoir, Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way. In it, she details how her faith sustained her amid the difficulties of Zach’s cancer battle.
“As a mother losing a child, there's a whole lot of hurt that goes with that, and a lot of struggle,” she told CP. “I'm so incredibly grateful for the faith for my faith, because my faith informs me that there's something more beyond this, and I could trust in that.”
“When it became evident that [Zach] didn't have much time left and we ran out of treatment options, then my focus had to be on, ‘OK, I need to prepare this child for eternity, and in that, also preparing myself and the rest of my family,’” she continued.
“So without our faith, without that belief in something bigger than what we can see, what's it all for? That’s where my hope came from, and that's where our joy comes from, is knowing that we're part of something bigger than just us.”
The Sobiechs are practicing Catholics — and their faith is quietly portrayed throughout “Clouds.” Initially, Baldoni revealed, “Clouds” was supposed to be a standard faith-based film, but he, along with the Sobiechs, decided to “redefine” what that means.
“We didn't believe this particular story needed to proselytize. We didn't believe that we needed to speak a chapter from John. We didn't need to show crosses everywhere. Faith showed up in the way they lived, showed up in their deeds. It wasn't about what they said.”
“[The Sobiechs] are not a family that necessarily wears their faith on their sleeve,” he added. “They’re a family that has their faith close to them, and they live it.”
Still, Baldoni said he loves talking about faith — especially in Hollywood, where the subject is somewhat “taboo.” He stressed that Laura Sobiech, in particular, is a “walking example” of what faith should look like.
“It doesn’t mean she’s perfect, it doesn’t mean her husband was perfect, or her son was perfect,” he clarified, “but that’s also the beauty of what faith looks like.”
“God,” he added, “has enormous grace and compassion that's unfathomable for us. He loves us even though we're messy and flawed and screwed up. He gives us that bounty to wake up the next day, if we're lucky enough to wake up the next day, and try to do better.”
Zach lived a life of service and made the most of his God-given time on earth — an example Baldoni said he, on a daily basis, tries to imitate.
“We are here for a short time, and the journey of the soul is an eternal journey,” Baldoni said. “I believe that our work should be a form of service.”
“We all have a unique gift and a unique reason why we're here on this planet,” he added. “I think it's about using it for the greater good.”
Through “Clouds,” Laura said she hopes viewers are reminded of what matters in life. The film, she said, is also a way to raise awareness for Zach’s Movement, raising money for Osteosarcoma through the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.
“When we were having to say goodbye to Zach and prepare for his death, we got to talk about really big things in very open and honest and vulnerable ways,” she said. “I would love for this story to inspire some of those conversations. I think we forget to do that sometimes. We get so focused outside of ourselves and outside of our family life.”
Laura added, “I hope we can really talk about the big things that really matter in life and not focus so much on the really petty things that we get so distracted by.”
“Clouds” will be available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday.