Film Review: Dumbstruck

This winning documentary about people and their puppets proves both absorbing and moving.

The Michael Redgrave ventriloquist segment of the 1945 film Dead of Night, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, is a real horror classic, absolutely chilling, so it is a relief to discover that in real life, puppet masters, as well as their inanimate constant companions, are actually sweet, very approachable and quite vulnerable. Writer-director Mark Goffman centers his documentary Dumbstruck around Vent Haven in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, the annual convention of puppeteers that is the dream go-to destination of everyone in the profession. The focus is on five ventriloquists, who range from the top of the professional heap to an achingly young, ambitious tyro.

Terry Fator is the big success story here—he won the $1 million first prize on “America's Got Talent” and went on to sign the reportedly biggest contract in Las Vegas history to the tune of $100 million, with his very own Mirage Hotel theatre. Dan Horn is another professional winner, a master of puppet movement, who is king of the coveted cruise circuit gigs. Kim Yeager, a former beauty queen, struggles to get her foot in the door and move up from the children's school gigs which have her driving all around the country. Thirteen-year-old Dylan Burdette, with his unique choice of Reggie, a wise-ass, dreadlocked, black player puppet, as his alter ego, has a long way to go, but is determined to do his thing, despite the tiny stature which makes him the smallest boy in his class and a macho dad who'd prefer he take up more athletic pursuits. The wild card here is Wilma Swartz, a middle-aged 6' 5" giantess, who lugs her Big Bird-like ostrich puppet to senior-citizen outlets and is facing eviction from her home.

Goffman has made a skillful, compelling and empathetic study of these determined individuals that proves amazingly touching as well. All five of his chosen subjects are misfits and most of them had to overcome a certain parental resistance to their calling. For all his triumphs, Fator, a winningly down-to-earth guy, has a non-present father who threw away his magician's gear when he felt his little boy was becoming too enamored of this pursuit, forcing Terry to turn to ventriloquism as it was something he could practice covertly. Burdette's skeptical father encourages his son to engage in rough-and-tumble motocross activities, which you hope doesn't conceal some dark agenda about Dylan injuring his arms, therefore making puppetry impossible. Yeager's mother rolls her eyes to heaven over her adult daughter's obsession with "dolls.” and just wishes she'd find a good man and raise a family. Swartz's family has virtually disowned her; she appears to be transgendered, which may also account for the rift, but the subject is never directly addressed here. Even Horn suffers family strife; during the filming, his wife announced her intention to divorce him, as his constant absences because of work have eroded their marriage.

The trompe-l'oeil, close-mouthed skill of Fator, who blew away those highly questionable TV judges (David Hasselhoff? Sharon Osbourne?) with a voice-thrown rendition of Etta James' "At Last," and Horn, whose puppets are amazingly lifelike, is truly impressive, an antidote to so much puppetry today, which consists, as in the Broadway show Avenue Q, of people obviously and annoyingly moving both their puppets and their mouths. Yeager displays obvious potential but has some way to go in developing her characters, as does young Burdette. Swartz is, well, ever-game, and living proof of the tight-knit goodwill of the "Vent" community who rally around her, donating money so her home will be saved.