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Dumbstruck -- Film Review

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PALM SPRINGS -- The ventriloquist's dummy just might be the original lo-fi avatar. As the engaging documentary "Dumbstruck" suggests, the voice-throwers who bring those inanimate bodies to life often are shy people channeling what they couldn't otherwise express. But the film wastes no time spelling out the psychology behind puppetry or even its history. The spotlight illuminates a well-chosen quintet of subjects, all wholesomely passionate practitioners of a readily dissed form of entertainment and each at a different point in their career. You don't have to read anyone's lips to know that this quick-moving crowd-pleaser, which received its world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is destined for a well-received theatrical run.

For his first feature, Mark Goffman, a writer-producer of TV dramas including "Law & Order: SVU" and "The Beast," spent two years following a couple of stars of the genre and three wannabes of varied experience and ambition. He bookends the doc with visits to the annual Vent Haven convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky., a 30-odd-year tradition among "vents," as they call themselves. Who knew.

It's no surprise that when an unknown 42-year-old named Terry Fator stepped onto the stage of NBC's "America's Got Talent" with his puppet Emma, the judges nearly dove for cover at the sight of a ventriloquist. It's also easy to see why he won the contest and went on to sign a five-year deal with the Mirage, reportedly the largest in Las Vegas history. Fator is the film's -- and the vent community's -- Cinderella story. Rising from obscurity to immense wealth, he brings promise to a whole group of people toiling in the kitschy shadows. He's also exceedingly down to earth, clearly astounded by his breakthrough, and Goffman frames his story for emotional impact.

For every Terry Fator, there are dozens still struggling to make it. Another of the film's central characters, Wilma Swartz, who performs for senior citizens with a Big Bird-like puppet wrapped around her 6-foot-5 frame, faces eviction for $1,079.42 in back taxes. Former beauty queen Kim Yeager, carting her dummies to elementary schools to deliver lessons in safety, tries to stay cheerful as she pursues her dream of a cruise-ship job. Those who have made it face other challenges: One of the top headliners of the cruise circuit, Dan Horn, is a master of puppet body language who brings a remarkable expressiveness to his characters while trying to keep the home front intact during his long absences.

Goffman's sharply edited film is intimate but discreet, zeroing in on telling moments while acknowledging the ventriloquists' vulnerabilities. Whole backstories come into focus as the camera catches domestic tensions. No need to explain why the favorite puppet of sweet, demure Kim -- whose mother is a study in tight-jawed disapproval -- is coarse loudmouth Bertha. Or why Dylan Burdette, a freckle-faced 13-year-old who must withstand the sports-centric pressures of his embarrassed father, has chosen wiseass Reggie, a dreadlocked black ladies' man, as his alter ego.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production: Figures of Speech Prods.
With: Terry Fator, Dan Horn, Kimberly Yeager, Wilma Swartz, Dylan Burdette
Writer-director: Mark Goffman
Executive producer: Elon Musk
Producer: Lindsay Goffman
Director of photography: George Reasner
Music: Daniel Licht, Kathleen "Bird" York
Editors: Doug Blush, Alyssa Clark, Sven Pape
Sales: UTA
No rating, 85 minutes