LAKELAND, Minn. – In the opening scene of the movie "Clouds," a tall, lanky teenager walks into Stillwater Area High School on crutches.
At one time, those crutches belonged to Zach Sobiech, who courageously battled an aggressive form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma before dying of the disease May 20, 2013.
The movie, now streaming on Disney+, gets its name from the song Zach wrote and recorded about eight months before he died, which went viral on social media and led to an avalanche of publicity about his fight and support from well-wishers around the world.
To make the film more authentic, producer and director Justin Baldoni, who also produced a documentary about Zach's final days, wanted to bring in meaningful items from Zach's life, including the crutches, some of his clothing and his guitars.
All were used by Fin Argus, who portrayed the remarkable Catholic teen from Lakeland, 15 minutes south of Stillwater along the St. Croix River, whose fame and inspiring music has lasted far beyond his final breath.
Zach's mother, Laura Sobiech, who attended the first week of filming in the fall 2019 in Montreal, was taken aback when she saw Argus walk onto the set dressed as Zach.
"Fin did an amazing job, even down to the way he used the crutches," Laura, 51, told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The first scene filmed was the opening scene, she said. "That was a hard day, a lot of mixed emotions when he came walking in on Zach's crutches, with the bald cap on (to signify losing his hair after chemotherapy treatments) and in Zach's clothes, looking just like Zach. That was hard. I did a lot of crying that day."
Eventually, other members of the Sobiech family – Rob, 56; Alli (Shoemaker), 30; Sam, 27; and Grace, 22 – got involved. Rob and Grace spent a weekend in November 2019 visiting the set and spending time with the actors who portrayed them. The whole family got to spend time with cast members when they came to Minnesota.
Even though some of the cast members had never portrayed a real person before, Laura gave them all high marks, including the woman who played her, Neve Campbell.
"Neve and I got to spend some time together up in Montreal and just really hit it off. I just love her," Laura said. "She did a great job. I just am thrilled with how she portrayed me, and it's just been fun to watch."
The Oct. 16 release of the movie coincided with the Oct. 13 rerelease of a book Laura published in 2014 called "Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom's Small Prayer in a Big Way." It offers an inside look at how the family struggled with Zach's diagnosis, battled the disease with him, and wrestled with deep life questions and faith.
The new title of the book is "Clouds: A Memoir." Laura did not change the original text, just added more content, including an update to the epilogue and more pictures. She started writing the original version just one month after Zach died and released it two weeks before the one-year anniversary of his death.
At that time, she wanted to tell the spiritual side – and the human side – of Zach's four-year battle with cancer, which she recounts in the book.
His story got lots of coverage in the secular media during his struggle, but often faith elements were given minimal or even no coverage at all, Laura noted then.
She wanted people to know how deep and inspiring Zach's Catholic faith was, especially in the last year of his life, when he channeled his thoughts and prayers into inspiring songs that touched millions and offered hope amid the suffering.
Laura wanted spiritual themes in the movie, too. There are unmistakable Catholic expressions in the film, including scenes from a family trip to Lourdes, France, which are based on a trip the Sobiechs actually took to visit the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes while Zach was sick.
All of the proceeds from Zach's music go to a fund set up in his name, the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, which is part of the Children's Cancer Research Fund, a national nonprofit that began at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s.
More than $2 million has been donated to Zach's fund, Laura said, and every penny goes to research. Laura also now works as a community outreach coordinator for Children's Cancer Research Fund, giving her another way to help defeat the disease that took her son's life. Osteosarcoma typically affects teenagers.
Laura said both her family and Zach's friends are doing well these days. His girlfriend, Amy Adamle, pursued a TV news career and worked at a station in Duluth, Minnesota, until July, when she returned to the Twin Cities to take a job in public relations.
Sammy Brown, Zach's music partner and childhood friend, works for a children's book publisher in New York. And, another friend, Mitchell Kluesner, works in cancer research and wants to go to medical school and be a pediatric oncologist.
All three made brief appearances in the movie as extras.
As for the Sobiechs, Laura and Rob are now grandparents. Alli got married shortly after Zach died and now has two children. She and her husband, Collin, live in River Falls, Wisconsin, while the two youngest Sobiech siblings, Sam and Grace, live in the Twin Cities.
Taking part in the filming of the movie and spending time with cast members, including one time at their Lakeland home, has been healing for the entire family, Laura said – and inspiring to their faith.
"I'm learning to trust God," she said. "It's an ongoing thing, for sure. I remember when all my kids were really little and just thinking about what it would be like to lose a child. And, it was terrifying. It was just this gut-wrenching thing to think about, and I really struggled with trusting God with my life. ... It's a scary thing.
"And so, I've lived through my worst nightmare ... and I got to see God's hand in it. And, there's comfort in that."
"Certainly, it's not easy to watch a loved one suffer and die," Laura added. "You have to go through all the emotional turmoil of that. But there is a peace and there's even a joy in it, knowing that God's hand is in it and he's in control. He's there. He knows what's going on, he knows what he's doing. And, just to have the peace that comes with that is a gift."
She also believes "Clouds" can be "this little shining light of hope" amid today's tumultuous times.
More about Laura Sobiech's book can be found at thecloudsbook.com.