As my recent review of The Descendants stated, finding the balance between comedy-drama and "drama with a touch of humour" can be tricky. Is Anybody There? treads the line between sentimental drama and black comedy, potentially an even trickier one to get right, and, as it happens, manages to do so rather well.
Set in Britain in the 1980s, the film tells the story of Edward (Bill Milner), a ten-year-old obsessed with ghosts and the afterlife who lives in the old people's home run by his parents (David Morrissey and Anne-Marie Duff). Edward hates his surroundings and the people he lives with, apart from the opportunities it gives him to explore what happens when they die. When retired stage magician Clarence (Michael Caine) moves into the home, things change for Edward as the two gradually form an unlikely friendship.
The pairing of Caine and Milner in the lead roles gives the film a strong partnership around which to build the story. Caine is reliably excellent, striking the balance between crotchety old git and lonely widower expertly. Milner, impressive in Son Of Rambow, is again strong here, although his performance is not quite as memorable. There are some very touching scenes between the two in the second half of the film once their friendship has had time to develop.
Duff and Morrissey provide the other strong pairing of the film, with Duff a very likable and sympathetic presence throughout. The relationship built up between her character and Edward feels very genuine and provides some of the most authentic moments of the entire film, and a pleasant counterbalance to the distant and preoccupied father provided by Morrissey. His performance throughout is impressive, the awkward nature of his decidedly '80s midlife crisis excruciatingly compelling.
Ironically for a film about the elderly, the story takes its time to get going, feeling too dawdling during the opening act and only reaching a pleasing momentum once the relationship between Edward and Clarence has truly begun to develop. The film is also often at its best when at its most blackly comic - an early sequence of the body of a previous resident unceremoniously removed via stairlift sets the dark level of humour well, and the climax of Clarence's show for Edward's birthday is simultaneously tragic and hilarious.
When the humour takes a backseat, things occasionally become a little too mawkish, but not to the point of spoiling the film's many positives. As we reach the film's final act, some elements may feel a little predictable, others a little too "happily ever after", but both Edward and Clarence's stories reach a satisfying conclusion, and the closing scenes are some of the film's most poignant.