If the act of shadowing five ventriloquists for two years sounds a little thin for a feature, don’t tell “Dumbstruck” director Mark Goffman, who sees the success of such narrowly focused docs as “Spellbound” (spelling bees) and “Wordplay” (crossword puzzles) as justification to spend 90 minutes delving into his fringe community of choice. The talking-puppet practice is inherently funny in these post-vaudeville times, though Goffman (whose mother-in-law, herself an amateur ventriloquist, suggested the topic) insists on taking the respectful high road and playing this niche-oriented pic more for drama than laughs or cult appeal.
As art forms go, ventriloquism has been cast in an unusually grim light by Hollywood, with most stories implying either inappropriate human-doll relations (remember Winona Ryder’s strange turn in “The Ten”?) or far-fetched homicidal tendencies (as in “Dead of Night” and “Devil Doll”). Since even Oscar winners, from Anthony Hopkins (“Magic”) to Adrien Brody (“Dummy”), have done their share of damage, it falls to Goffman to clear the record.
Operating in a gentler spirit, echoed by Daniel Licht’s playful score, the helmer bookends his group portrait with two trips to the annual Vent Haven Convention. On the first one, Goffman picks four individuals of varying levels of eccentricity, all of them committed to pursuing ventriloquism professionally, and adds a fifth, Terry Fator, an “America’s Got Talent” winner who’s always dreamed of attending the confab.
Dumbstruck” introduces its subjects with glimpses into their family lives, revealing tensions across the board. Beauty pageant winner Kim Yeager pursues her dream despite constant criticism from her mother (the film’s most entertaining figure); success is Dan Horn’s curse, as his career touring with cruise lines makes it tough for him to see his wife and kids; 6-foot-5 ostrich lady Wilma Swartz has been cut off by nearly all her relatives; 13-year-old Dylan Burdette’s dad doesn’t know how to relate to his puppet-obsessed son; and nothing Fator does seems good enough to earn his father’s approval.
This rich opening chapter suggests an alternate direction the film could have gone in, focusing on the ventriloquists’ skeptical family members. Instead, the movie tracks their long-shot stabs at fame.
Goffman and his cameras are uncannily present to witness key meltdowns and turning points in his subjects’ lives, which can be plenty dramatic, though things start to feel repetitive after about an hour.
It’s only natural that auds should root for such characters to succeed, but since human nature also harbors a mean streak, it’s peculiar that “Dumbstruck” doesn’t better exploit the obvious humor of its eccentric subject. There’s no distinction made between good and bad ventriloquism, for example, and Goffman glosses over the fascinating psychology underlying the performers’ weird choices (why does teen Burdette choose a black dummy?) and the strange split-personality aspect of the craft itself (Swartz’s issues are clearly far more complex than the film lets on).
The version screened at the Palm Springs fest was a lo-def digital projection, though the pic was shot on HD, and the release print should look on par with other semipro docus.