Photo by AnnemarieLean-Vercoe | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Is There Anybody Out There? Review: A First-Person Quest to Be Seen

2023 Sundance Film Festival

/
5 mins read

Is There Anybody Out There?
(U.K., 87 min.)
Dir. Ella Glendining
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)

 

As she scrolls through social media networks, Ella Glendining wonders if there’s anybody else like her in the world. The filmmaker has a rare condition in which she was born with no hip joints and short femurs. She tells how her body baffled doctors and how her parents endeavoured to give her a “normal” childhood. However, she also can’t shed a pang of loneliness.

Glendining’s film Is There Anybody Out There? is a first-person quest to discover someone who looks like her. During her journey through Facebook posts, Zoom calls, and awkward interviews, Glendining explores intersectionality among people with disabilities. The film admirably uses a personal point of view to make visible underrepresented perspectives, but also the experiences of people with invisible disabilities. As Glendining confronts her own future, the film invites larger considerations of ableism and the need to realign society rather than to “correct” anyone who falls outside the norm.

The director’s research leads her to a Miami doctor named Dr. Paley. His website advertises radical surgery that could help her learn more about her body. It could maybe even let her spend the rest of her life without mobility issues.

 

And Baby Makes Three

However, Is There Anybody Out There?, and Glendining’s life, takes a twist when the filmmaker becomes unexpectedly pregnant. As she and her then-boyfriend Scott prepare to have a baby, Glendining explores the possibility of delivering a natural birth. This query opens a new set of questions that gives the film some focus.

Glendining now considers ableism and disability from a new point of view. What right does a parent have to determine a child’s life? What right does anybody have to decide another person’s definition of normalcy? As Glendining confronts these concerns as she mentally prepares to become a mother, she understands more about the choices her parents made years ago.

 

Visibility vs. Finesse

Interviews with Glendining’s parents and her friend Naomi, who has autism, shed more light on the ableism people with disabilities face daily. The filmmaker’s interview style admittedly leaves the doc a little shaky. Often reading relatively basic questions from her phone, Glendining gets limited material, although her mother sheds important light on parenting and her own struggles. Other times, the approach is a bit too casual. For example, Glendining and Naomi discuss disability over a bottle of prosecco and then some G&Ts. This kind of thing might be fine for a pre-interview or backgrounder, but it doesn’t do the film any favours. When she finally meets Dr. Paley, she deferentially sidesteps his uncomfortably ableist philosophy, but then vents in a testimonial shot in the parking lot. A train interrupts hers repeatedly as she delivers her statement. One can only laugh with her as the toots say enough about her headspace after the meeting.

Glendining also faces new challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic and limited ability to meet people she encounters in online groups. She compensates best she can with first-person diaries shot in vertical on her phone. While one must admire what the well-intentioned Anybody offers in terms of representation and visibility, it is admittedly very rough as a feature film playing among a dozen titles competing in the world’s most prestigious showcase for documentary. The story might be better served through an accessible web series, or even TikTok piece since Glendining’s approach borrows heavily from the online confessional format. One must nevertheless appreciate that somebody out there will inevitably feel seen with this story.

 

Is There Anybody Out There? premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

 

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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