What's that you say? A documentary about ventriloquists? Could anyone resist?
Resist at your own risk, however, with Mark Goffman's Dumbstruck, opening in limited release Friday, because you'll miss one of the year's most intriguing slices of an odd wedge of life. Goffman drops us into the middle of an annual vent gathering - the Vent Haven convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky. As his camera makes the rounds of workshops and performances, he not-so-casually picks off a cross-section of ventriloquists and introduces them.
There's 13-year-old Dylan, a white kid with an African-American puppet - and one with braids, no less. Kimberly is a former Miss Ohio in her early 30s, who's been playing children's safety shows almost daily for years and longs to break into the cruise-ship circuit. That leads us to Dan, who is the king of the cruise-ship vents - but whose marriage is crumbling because of his lengthy absences.
Then there's Terry, seemingly the most hapless of the bunch, painting houses and mowing lawns for a living, unable to get away from work to attend the convention. And, finally, there's Wilma, who performs at nursing homes and is barely making ends meet. Indeed, she comes home at one point to find an eviction notice pasted to her front door.
Goffman moves easily between these central characters: Kimberly's cruise-ship vacation where she tries to talk herself into a brief performing spot for the ship's audience, as an impromptu tryout; Dylan's efforts to get his first ventriloquist gig; Dan emailing desperately to his wife to try to hold his marriage together while his boat is in the Far East.
And then there's Terry, whose full name is Terry Fator. We see him with his breakthrough performance on America's Got Talent (when his puppet sang At Last in a perfect Etta James impression). From there, it's seemingly a short leap from obscurity to having a theater with his name on it at the Mirage in Las Vegas - and then most lucrative contract in town.
Each of Goffman's subjects is open about his or her ambitions. Hey, they're in show business, doing something that most people classify as one of the variety arts, if they're feeling charitable. But, at the same time, these people have a passion for this kind of entertainment - one driven by the absolute conviction that they can turn ventriloquism into a well-paying performance art.
The most intriguing character, in a way, is Wilma, an apparent transgender woman, who talks poignantly about the fact that she hasn't seen her little boy in 20 years because Wilma's ex-mother-in-law told the child that Wilma was dead. Faced with eviction, Wilma opens her heart online to the vent community, looking for help in keeping her home from going into foreclosure.
As the central figures in this film all keep learning, it's less about their ability to talk without moving their lips and more about the material - are the jokes funny? Audiences will only watch technical skill so long; then they want to laugh. The range of skill from young Dylan to Terry Fator (who gets to hire a comedy writer for the first time in his career when he takes his act to Vegas) is a wide one and, over and over, it comes back to the gags themselves as much as their delivery (though Dan shows just how much farther a weak joke will go with a strong performance).
Dumbstruck is an exceptionally human comedy, about people who use dummies to express their true feelings - and get paid for it. It is a modest documentary - but a highly entertaining one.