A ventriloquist without his dummy is just an awkward babbling man. This is the premise of Billy, a film from the Netherlands making its North American premier at the North Bend Film Festival. Gerard de Groot (Bruno Vanden Broecke) is a comedian by way of talking dummy and has centered his life around his comedy conduit named Billy. Billy’s a funny Don Rickles-looking puppet with a shocking persona to match. He is Gerard’s path to success but also buries his life in the heartache of living in his puppet’s shadow.
Billy does get in his fair share of trouble. He’s constantly heckling back to the audience, picking up women, snarling racist insults at taxi drivers; he is everything that Gerard is not. It’s through his constant association that the comedian becomes tired of his own routine. Is he nothing but the mouthpiece of a doll? Can he ever exist within a relationship, let alone the world of comedy nightclubs, on his own?
The flat, dryly affected comedy rises to the occasion here. Billy has a winning personality outside its own puppetry, casting light and warmth on our human ability to adapt to challenges and overcome our genuine shyness about the world. It follows Gerard on a nice romantic journey, where he picks up gorgeous women with the puppet but finds truer love using his own spirit and ingenuity. We see that culturally, we have placed all of the importance on the act, and it’s not about the person creating the performance anymore. But behind the curtain, they hurt too, and like most comedy, their ability to create laughter comes as a function of their own very real internal pain.
Billy is Theo Maassen’s feature debut. It shows sometimes, with awkward lingering shots and some unintended laughs. It is up to the director that everything is done intentionally, and if it’s not fair to know their audience and manipulate them, then to understand them and create for them anyway. Billy remains subtly charming and has the kind of quirky spunk to propel indie directors onto bigger and greater projects. In some scenes, we might worry the talking dummy is the best actor of all but Gerard’s sweet girlfriend Christine de Boer gives a grounding performance to hold the center.
There’s plenty of room for potential here. When Maassen’s on-point, Billy’s genuinely a very funny romantic comedy. It’s when Gerard puts away the puppet and performs with ritual seriousness that our attention also fades away. It has a struggle of a second act, then, trying to reconcile how to entertainingly show the broken humanity of a man hidden behind a puppet. It’s a hard juggling act with a late-stage recovery, but there’s some good fun to be had along the way.