‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ Review: Touching Documentary on Disability

Is There Anybody Out There? (2023) © Conic Films

What is it like to feel as if you’re the only person in the room, all the time? Ella Glendining knows. At one point in this highly confessional and fascinating documentary on disability she admits that sometimes: “I do feel like a different species”. Over the course of an hour and a half, she takes us along on a mission to find a body that looks just like hers. 


Is There Anybody Out There? opens with an extended dance scene of our narrator and protagonist Ella, busting a move in her room to the groovy sound of ‘Frank Sinatra’ by the band Cake. She flips her hair, she waves her arms, she seems carefree. But she’s not. Ella is living with a rare disability—she was born without hip joints.

The film opens with nostalgic home video footage of Ella as a child at Christmas, recording a home movie for her grandmother. Slowly, we learn about her life. The way she has been treated, the looks she gets, the way people like her are portrayed in the media, and especially “that feeling of being the only one in the room”. As an adult, she lives a full life as a filmmaker, and has gotten used to the stares and judgement. It’s the loneliness that bothers her. She longs to meet another person with a body just like hers. This becomes her fixation and mission over the course of her film, a passion project that spans years and takes her right across the globe. Ella’s journey is also one into the self, and it is a privilege to be taken along for the ride.

Her quest is abruptly interrupted when she becomes pregnant. Having her own child leads her to contemplate the surgeries that parents organise for their children with disabilities like hers, surgeries that are often a long and painful process that keeps children out of school and in and out of hospital for years.

This BFI Doc Society production is a very special insight into life with a disability, but Ella refuses to be defined by her condition alone. Her autobiography also offers incredibly brave and raw insights into her pregnancy, her family history and the troubles within it, interesting reflections on the filmmaking process, and how she negotiates her queer identity as a woman now having a child with a man. Her experience of pregnancy and birth is almost as engaging as her quest for a body like hers. Along the way, she reflects on living with disability in general, with the help of her friend Naomi, who has the opposite problem: an invisible disability, autism.

Is There Anybody Out There? (2023) © Conic Films

The film also features archival television clips showing just how poorly people with disabilities have been treated in the past. In one particularly shocking clip, an interviewer asks a woman using a wheelchair if she wishes she hadn’t been born. This archival footage is carefully sourced and edited. The B-roll footage is cinematic and beautiful. Some of Ella’s self-recorded interviews are in portrait mode on her phone, relaxing in the bath after a long day or when she can grab a quick moment—but this only emphasises the confessional aspect of the project, and contrasts nicely with the crisp cinematography elsewhere in the film. The music in tense moments is done well, and overall the film is well made as well as incredibly touching in a very special ordinary, everyday way. 

Ella is a relatable protagonist, down to earth and determined not to be convinced that her disability needs fixing: “It is what it is, as they say on Love Island”. She’s not a totally perfect protagonist either, but this makes her relatable. She never shies away from the truth of her feelings and opinions, and admits that her parents did not have to make the same difficult decision because surgery was not an option for Ella.

Is There Anybody Out There? (2023) © Conic Films

Her search for a body just like hers ends up taking Ella in more directions than anticipated. The need to belong is an entirely human one. To feel like we are ‘normal’ is something most of us take for granted. To work against that feeling, to embrace our difference, is an uphill struggle. But at one point, sitting on the grass in America, the mother of a child with a disability like Ella’s celebrates how each person manages their lives and disabilities differently: “Y’all are so unique. Everyone is so different”. Ella thinks about this for a moment—the opposite of the sameness she has been fighting to find—and after a pause agrees: “Yeah. It is cool”.

The Verdict

This is a brave, important, and beautiful film. It is raw, unflinching, but also kind and hopeful. It is both a highly personal insight into one woman’s life, and an engaging investigation into the way disability is perceived in public life.  

Words by Eli Dolliver

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