The seeds for "Dumbstruck" were planted by a sock slipped on a hand and the wedding toast that followed. Yes, you read that right — sock makes wedding toast, inspires filmmaker.
Somehow that's a fitting genesis for this quirky, if uneven documentary on ventriloquists, which takes us inside their unusual and unusually small world. Well that and, as the production notes explain, the 2007 writers strike that had left writer-director Mark Goffman ("The West Wing," "Law & Order: SVU") at loose ends and looking for a story to tell.
Regardless, in rummaging around, Goffman, in his feature directing debut, has given us a window on an art form that had mostly disappeared after Edgar Bergen and puppet Charlie McCarthy's heyday in the '50s and '60s. That is, until a few years ago when a guy named Terry Fator exploded on "America's Got Talent." But even his was a story of struggle, 22-years to become an "overnight" sensation.
Fator is one of five "vents," as they call themselves, the film follows for a year. While Goffman's cameras are there as Fator signs an unprecedented $100-million deal with Las Vegas' Mirage Hotel, he is the exception. Far more common is the story of Kim Yeager, a former Ohio beauty queen who plays the regional kid-entertainment circuit for pennies and hopes for the holy grail of vent success: a cruise ship gig.
The grail belongs to Dan Horn, the ventriloquist whose story anchors the piece, one of the few who manage to make a decent living plying their craft, which isn't to say life is easy as his 25-year marriage threatens to crumble. Even Fator's extraordinary success has not mended a long estrangement from his father, a split caused in part by his puppet passion.
That is what makes Goffman's film such a poignant people-watching pleasure. For ventriloquists are an often lonely and yet surprisingly optimistic lot. These are artists of varying degrees of talent who only find their voice by giving it away to the various characters they create — Freud would have had a field day with this bunch.
It also puts "Dumbstruck" in good company, as a growing number of documentaries attempt to dice up some of society's smallest slices. Probably the best known is 2002's delightful "Spellbound," which captured the vibrant life to be found on the road to the National Spelling Bee finals and earned an Oscar nomination in the process. A few years later, "Wordplay" dug into the crossword puzzle obsession via the New York Times' legendary puzzle editor, Will Shortz.
"Dumbstruck" brings that same sense of discovery as we follow the filmmaker and director of photography George Reasner into the American heartland. The first stop is the annual Vent Haven Convention in Ft. Mitchell, Ky., which has the distinction of being the ventriloquism capital and another halfway around the world in Osaka, where Horn teaches classes for aspiring Japanese vents.
If there is a universal truth to be gleaned from the film, beyond just how hard it is to be good at the art of ventriloquism, it is how it tends to divide the artists from their families. Beauty queen Kim's mother wishes for grandchildren — the depth of those feelings registering in the disgust on her face as she talks about her daughter's "puppet children." Dylan Burdette, at 13 the youngest vent featured, spends hours in his basement practicing while his father presses him into motocross competitions on the weekends. Like its subjects, the film is often raw around the edges, but it comes with a lot of heart, if not many happy endings.