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by on May 11, 2011
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Film festivals are typically rife with quirky, unusual documentaries about a certain group of people that XXXXXXX. The idea is it’s just so silly that you’ll watch and enjoy it, then be surprised by the humanity behind the craziness.

And I give you “Dumbstruck,” a doc that follows ventriloquists, which is fortunately getting a wider release than most docs of its type. Among the crazy groups I’ve seen followed with a camera — from spoiled suburban high school students to video game champions to old people singing rock music to barbershop quartets — this one has to rank high among those you wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with for 90 minutes.

“Dumbstruck” begins at the annual ventriloquists’ convention, where the dummies chatter all day long, and they have their puppets with them, too. (Hope you don’t mind that I got the “he’s the dummy” joke out of the way early.)

Of course, as with any interesting group, its members have interesting, heartbreaking and hopeful backstories.

For starters, we have Terry Fator, who landed on the TV show “America’s Got Talent,” then, after nearly being laughed off the stage before he even started, won the whole darn thing and turned that into a multimillion dollar gig in Las Vegas.

That, of course, makes Fator the Donald Trump of puppetmasters, and the rest of the group treats him like a rock star: He signs autographs, hands out words of encouragement and offers critiques of his colleagues’ work (upon request).

And we meet Kim, a former beauty queen hoping to reach what is, for most ventriloquists, the “big time” — a recurring gig on a cruise liner.

There’s also Dan, who just scored that gig and is finding the pressures of being on the water for weeks and months at a time stressful to a marriage.

Dylan is a 13-year-old kid who found solace next to a dummy, trying to hone his craft and win the respect of his peers.

And there’s Wilma, a transsexual woman, whose circumstances the filmmakers curiously never address. It’s odd to ignore that particular white elephant, especially when they once show her living as a man and talking about her son — whom she hasn’t seen for ages and whose mother and grandmother have told that Wilma is dead. (Even as the filmmakers reveal these images, Wilma goes to the lengths of not using gender-specific pronouns; nothing more than “medical problems” are discussed.)

Wilma, as it turns out, is also having financial issues and is about to lose her house but for the charity of her fellow puppeteers.

It all adds up to an entertaining, engaging film that stands well with those quirky documentaries that too often don’t get the run they deserve.