Featured in last year’s Atlanta Film Festival and directed by Emory University alumnus Mark Goffman, the documentary “Dumbstruck” covers a peculiar but endearing showbiz demographic: ventriloquists and the puppets who crack wise from the ends of their fists.
Ventriloquist dummies and their pet humans have gotten a spooky psychological rap in feature films. The dolls are shown as impediments to healthy human relationships, or even as murderous fiends. (See “Dead of Night,” “Magic” and “Dead Silence.”) “Dumbstruck” suggests that there might be some factual basis in those fictional depictions of social unease. It follows five “vents” of differing ages and accomplishments who share something in common besides the ability to keep their lips from moving. Their commitment to this art form causes their personal lives to suffer to some degree. Watching the movie, we witness resentful or distressed parents, estranged siblings and the disruption of one longtime marriage.
That’s not to say that “Dumbstruck” is a bleak movie, but it certainly covers the gamut from riches to rags, unfolding in packed Las Vegas theaters and half-empty church basements. At the top end, there’s Terry Fator, a talented nobody a few years ago whose winning of “America’s Got Talent” shot him into the entertainment stratosphere. At the other end of experience is 13-year-old Dylan, a pale, small Kentucky boy. His father seems equally perturbed that Dylan would rather play with puppets than ride motorcycles and that his son’s alter ego is a dreadlocked black doll named Reggie (whose street-smart talk borders on racial caricature).
The movie’s most poignant figure is Wilma, a middle-aged, six-foot-five lady determined to bring joy to children and old folks, though her own life isn’t so great. She’s been ostracized by her family and lost custody of her son, at the age of five, to her ex-husband; he told the boy that his mother had died. While one of the film’s performers is making $20 million a year, Wilma has to rely on donations from her “ventriloquism family” to raise exactly $1,079.42 to keep from losing her home.
There’s a cruel paradox at work here. While it’s generally accepted that a lot of ventriloquists tend to be naturally shy, the movie shows that, to make any sort of living, they have to fight to get noticed. We see young Dylan fumble his way through an audition he’s not prepared for. Meanwhile, serial beauty pageant winner Kim from Ohio is seeking tips on getting booked on the lucrative cruise ship circuit. Her mentor, Dan Horn (neck-and-neck with Fator as the most impressive performer in the documentary), is realizing that his long stints at sea are threatening his 24-year marriage to a woman tired of playing Penelope to his Odysseus.
“Dumbstruck” nicely captures the echoes among its subjects’ stories, and treats everyone — rich, poor, talented or just competent — with a clear-eyed tenderness. The movie is entertaining, at times wince-inducing, and gently moving. It shows us that this kind of life can be lonely — but on the other hand (so to speak), these folks carry talkative friends with them wherever they go.
Mark Goffman and his wife Lindsay, who produced the film, will appear for Q&A sessions at Landmark following the 7:15 p.m. screenings on April 15 and 16.
“Dumbstruck.” A documentary directed by Mark Goffman. Rated PG. 84 minutes. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.