The desire to be wholly understood, to see yourself mirrored in another person, is a quest as eternal as it is futile. We don’t want to be alone, but we also tell ourselves that our uniqueness is part of what makes us valuable. That contradictory condition is at the heart of the debut feature from Ella Glendining, Is There Anybody Out There? Similarly themed to Reid Davenport’s Sundance doc from last year, I Didn’t See You There, which also tracks a personal exploration of disability and cites cinematic references such as Tod Browning’s Freaks, Is There Anybody Out There? is far less focused and far more literal than Davenport’s visual poetry. Glendining, who has no hip joints and short femurs, has created an often tedious video diary tracking her own relationship with disability, ableism (internalized and external) and family.
Because her body is extremely unique, Glendining makes it her goal to find someone built exactly like her. At least, at first. She finds and even meets a few people who can truly relate to her disability, but eventually realizes that this search for companionship and empathy is built on a complex assumption that can feel, at times, obviously incorrect: That everyone sharing a similar body shares the same experience and feelings towards their bodies. It’s an assumption that itself has a bit of condescension built in, even if there may be some truth in the case of her specific disability. But even in her small sample size, she finds a breadth of attitudes and experiences that push back against her premise. But this only takes up a portion of the film, as navigating its roundabout leads Glendining to other exits, like making broad observations about disabled kinship and the ableism prevalent in the medical field.
Is There Anybody Out There? changes objectives as often as it changes styles. Half of the time it’s intentionally amateurish and personal, with confessional front-camera phone vlogs accompanying laptop Zoom footage. The other half is blandly professional: Talking head interviews with her parents, archival footage from home videos and ignorant TV specials, slick Steadicam coverage of hospitals. Neither feels as honest as they intend. I dislike the deployment of the YouTube confessional style here (which has been, I suppose, farmed out to Instagram Reels and TikTok), because of its faux-realism. Its false closeness. Especially when juxtaposed with its more traditional aesthetic—most directly in an elevator sequence where a phone camera is turned upon cinematographer Annemarie Lean-Vercoe and her rig—we’re confronted with the itchiness of constructed intimacy. The form reflects the content, as Glendining’s rambling diary entries become knotted sequences of stumbling scriptedness and pointed staging. At least the camcorder footage of Glendining as a child lacks pretension, and is an especially effective foil to the ogling eye of British docuseries entry A Day in the Life of Kevin Donnellon.
This digression was understandably hard to avoid. The long production time—Glendining finds out she’s pregnant, has and raises her son, and weathers a new pandemic until she can travel abroad over the course of shooting—inherently rocks the boat. What vision could persist through all of that? But the effect is harder to forgive. In just 87 minutes, Glendining follows the years’ branching paths just far enough to tease us with a glimpse of insight before heading back to the familiar beaten trail.
When she first begins her journey, mostly through Facebook groups, a particular doctor’s name keeps coming up. He specializes in surgeries designed for people with Glendining’s body type. When she initially interviews him, he provides clinical information, then uses the same call to backdoor a sales pitch for his procedure. At the end of the doc, she’s able to meet him in person. There, the complicated question of socialized ableism and consent—where parents are asked whether they’ll subject their toddlers to procedures with substantial risks and long recoveries—is lightly addressed. Will these kids have happier lives post-procedure? More “normal” ones? Is it a question that comes down to the individual, or is there an element of community and culture that should be considered?
These ideas have been well-explored in the ongoing movement to consider a social model of disability over a medical model of disability, one that favors broader acceptance and adaptation from the majority over the pure medical management of the minority. It’s also a movement that’s had these terms for 40 years. Is There Anybody Out There? is keen to remind us that the intrinsically paternalistic medical model is still front-and-center—especially from, yes, medical professionals who’re pioneering highly specific surgeries. It does so with an unflattering interview that’s later contrasted with an interview with a much more pleasant doctor. It’s a little like when you see viral trends where teens find out about something that’s been around for ages: It’s not wrong and I’m not mad it’s happening, but I’m still disappointed that the conversation is stuck in a cycle.
This feeling is never more potent than when Glendining tracks down (again, on Facebook), Kevin Donnellon, the disabled subject of the aforementioned ITV special. In the 50 years since his TV debut, Donnellon became a badass political protester (one deserving a documentary in his own right) with a lovely family, sticking it to haters including but not limited to his own mother. His virtual interview cuts to various photos of his radical exploits, static images more exciting than anything else in Is There Anybody Out There?
And then we’re back with Glendining and her film, with nothing more stylized than some of its footage playing in reverse and a final cloying needledrop. What Is There Anybody Out There? lacks in originality, it could’ve made up in specificity. But despite the form, this is where Glendining shies away. Her monologues are dappled with blotches of compelling yet unexplored interiority (her ironic self-flagellation around her ability to have a natural birth; her invisible queerness as someone in a relationship with a cis man), and her conversations with her Autistic friend are bedaubed by stiff and stagey questions. Her relationship with her family is understandably protected, but so too is her relationship with herself. With so little runtime and such big questions taken upon its shoulders, the film has little opportunity to get beyond the basics.
Is There Anybody Out There? relies on the intimately personal, but keeps us on the surface. It’s a slice of life, but spread thin over years. It’s markedly and angrily political, but its confrontations are half-hearted. It’s on a quest defined by rarity, but gets distracted by common threads. If this is the first time you’ve considered disability, then Glendining will hold your hand as she introduces you to the concept and continued impact of ableism through the lens of her uncommon body. For the rest of us, the movie’s unsatisfying trajectory will feel completely familiar.
Director: Ella Glendining
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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