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The Independent Critic

Wilma Swartz, Dan Horn, Dylan Burdette, Kim Yeager, Terry Fator
Mark Goffman
Rated PG
85 Mins.
Magnolia Pictures

 "Dumbstruck" Review 
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How badly do I want you to see Dumbstruck?

Having worked a 10+ hour day, I found myself rushing over to Indy's Keystone Art Cinema for the theatrical premiere of this Heartland Film Festival favorite as it opens its limited nationwide run with distributor Magnolia Pictures. I was tired. I was a little cranky and, quite honestly, I wasn't feeling particularly well.

All was forgotten within moments of the film's opening scenes, introducing us to five ventriloquists at varying stages of their professional lives as they struggle to get noticed, work to pay the bills, seek to find a balance between ventriloquism and life, and uniformly bring new light to an art that seems to be experiencing a bit of an return to favor in the entertainment world.

There's Dan Horn, a long-time ventriloquism vet who's considered one of the best in his field and has achieved what is the pinnacle of success for most ventriloquists - a consistent gig on the high end cruise circuit. Despite nearly three decades of success, the months that Dan spends away from his family have taken its toll and during the course of shooting Dumbstruck his wife of 25 years drops the "d" word.

On the flip side, 14-year-old Dylan Burdette is a bit of a shy kid who seems to have discovered himself through Reggie, his African-American alter ego. Dylan's parents are endlessly supportive, though his father is simultaneously bewildered by his son's unusual interest.

Wilma Swartz is, perhaps, the film's most endearing character, a quirky and delightful woman of 6'5" who is estranged from siblings who can't comprehend her professional pursuits. Wilma is a beloved member of the ventriloquism community, and primarily uses her talent in shows for children, nursing homes and faith-based settings. When financial issues threaten her home, Wilma realizes that, indeed, it is the ventriloquism community that is her real family.

Kim Yeager is, quite literally, a beauty queen. A veteran of beauty pageants who has worked professionally in ventriloquism for nearly 10 years doing hundreds of shows annually, Kim longs to hit the next level of success and begins to feel that personally and professionally she's hit a bit of a rut.

Then, there's Terry Fator. Recognize the name? He toiled away on the ventriloquism circuit for 22 years before appearing on "America's Got Talent" in 2007. Actually, he didn't just appear on the show. He WON the show and its $1 million prize. His win led to a major gig at Hilton in Las Vegas, a lifelong dream, before he not so long ago signed a five year, $100 million contract with Mirage.

$100 million.

Let me say that again. $100 million.

Clearly, he's no dummy.

Picked up by Magnolia Pictures after a Landmark Theatres exec saw the film at the Palm Springs Film Festival, Dumbstruck: The Documentary has already beaten the odds by being one of the very few docs to actually get a theatrical release. Lindsay and Mark Goffman attended the Indianapolis premiere of the film, along with both Dylan and Kim from the cast.

Again, how badly do I want you to see this film?

I had an invitation from the Goffman's to join them for a post-screening gathering, but instead I'm sitting here at my computer writing away on a review so it'll be up and live before tomorrow's screenings begin so that you'll drop your plans to see yet another half-assed Hollywood blockbuster and step out of your comfort zone to go check out a film that will make you laugh, make you feel great and have you leaving the theater feeling better than when you entered it.

I know I sure did.

Opening weekend is of maximum importance for every film, but for an independent film it's an absolutely essential period when the film's entire theatrical presence can be determined? Will this film stay in theaters or will it make a quick detour to home video? Do you really want quality films in theaters?

If you do, then go see Dumbstruck: The Documentary. Writer/director Mark Goffman has crafted a genuinely entertaining, frequently funny and inspiring film that beautifully balances the stories of these five individuals, never preferring one over the other and, despite the unexpected explosive success of Terry Fator, never failing to recognize the wonder and importance of each of these five stories.

It helps that the Goffman's have discovered five truly wonderful human beings whom you grow to truly care about over the course of the film, not just as ventriloquists but as human beings. Realistically, both sides of the coin are shown as the Goffman's realistically capture the people who remain skeptical of their family members and, as well, the many struggles that these people face in their daily lives. Even Fator, who comes off here as a truly genuine human being and a great entertainer, experiences his own family dramas that aren't all neatly tied in a bow simply because he manages to accomplish a magnificent level of success.

It would have been so tempting, one would think, for a film with so many inherent laughs to poke fun at these choices and these lives. They could have become caricatures, but kudos to Goffman for they are far from caricatures. Goffman achieves a near perfect balance of capturing the quirks, eccentricities and even weaknesses of these five individuals without ever turning them into anything less than genuine, authentic and wholly expressed human beings.

On a certain level, Dumbstruck brings to mind a doc from a couple years back called Young@Heart, a doc that portrayed a chorus of senior citizens who covered contemporary rock, pop and alternative tunes. Yet, Dumbstruck is a more successful film because it marvelously weaves together how the professional impacts the personal and the personal impacts the professional.

Daniel Licht's original music for the film is a perfect companion to the film's alternatively light and more richly human moments. If there's one ever so slight beef with the film it's that Goffman seems to have intentionally chosen a lighter, more entertaining feeling for the film that occasionally mutes the impact of a couple of the film's more emotionally impactful scenes involving Dan and Kim. While there's no question this is a legitimate choice to make, Dumbstruck might have had even more emotional resonance had these scenes been allowed to play out a bit more fully.

Minor directorial quibbles aside, Dumbstruck: The Documentary is the kind of heart and humor-centered documentary that audiences will love and indie film fans will deeply appreciate. The film will be playing at Indy's Keystone Art Cinema starting May 13th and, if tonight's sold out screening is any indication, may very well find itself enjoying an extended run. The film also opens in Minneapolis at the Lagoon Cinema on May 20th, LA's Regent Theater on May 27th (with a Q&A scheduled) and San Francisco's Opera Plaza Cinema on June 3rd (Q&A scheduled). Additional screenings should be added throughout its nationwide release.

For more information on Dumbstruck, check out the Dumbstruck: The Documentary website.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic