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Shove your hand up a puppet’s ass and make it sing like Etta James, and maybe you too could earn $100 milllion over five years. That’s the astonishing amount of money ventriloquist Terry Fator made after winning the second season of America’s Got Talent. You may roll your eyes—but damn, when that dummy belts out “At Last,” it’s much more likely your jaw will drop.
The careers of five artists are tracked in Dumbstruck, Mark Goffman’s slight but engaging documentary about the world of ventriloquism. Terry is clearly the anomaly here, having risen from the Vent Haven Convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky., (“the ventriloquism capital of the world”) to the Mirage in Las Vegas. The rest have varying degrees of success: Dylan, a 13-year-old who manipulates a black puppet he calls Reggie, bombs at a circus tryout. (His dad then encourages motocross.) Wilma, 6-foot-5 and on the high side of middle age, seems to treat ventriloquism more as a hobby, and during the course of filming she’s served an eviction notice. (Most of her family wants nothing to do with her.) More successful are former beauty queen Kim and cruise king Dan—a cruise-ship gig, apparently, is the brass ring ventriloquists clamor for, though Dan’s success hurts his personal life. As for cheerful, pretty 31-year-old Kim? It’s hard to mess up a personal life that doesn’t exist.
At times, it’s unclear whether Goffman wants the audience to see his subjects as freaks. Terry, again, exists on another plane—he’s too ridiculously talented not to have turned his hobby into a career. And Dylan’s got the excuse that he’s just a shy, awkward kid who uses ventriloquism as an outlet. Even Dan, who’s appeared on the Late Show With David Letterman, is presented as relatively normal: He understands his business is goofy, but at least it’s better than a 9-to-5.
The ladies, though, don’t come off so rosy. Poor Wilma not only looks like a bag-lady loon when she’s filmed officiating the wedding of two of her puppets (well, actually a puppet officiates, but you know), she’s also not very good, making her sad family history feel all the more tragic: There’s likely a bit more going on here than we’re made privy to, and perhaps a bigger disconnect from reality than the one any person who communicates through dummies must nurture. Kim, meanwhile, may also be on the verge of losing family. In an interview, her mother tries to play off a comment that she figured her daughter would have outgrown her affinity for puppets. As the film goes on, however, it’s obvious she finds the whole thing distasteful, particularly Kim’s habit of calling her puppets her children. Mom just wants Kim to settle down and have real kids.
Ultimately, Goffman regards his subjects affectionately. Clips from two Vent Haven conventions show a family reunion of sorts, with volunteers pointing out that most ventriloquists are quite reserved and isolated except when they come to the gathering. Each subject’s passion for the craft is clear; Kim, in particular, may seem crazy through her mother’s eyes, but her story is really that of any person with talent trying to make it big. When Goffman closes the film with scenes from the convention, accompanied by “What a Wonderful World,” it officially quiets any temptation to mock.