• courtesy of Virgil Films

Actress and comedian Nina Conti has carved out a healthy alt-comedy career in her native U.K. and earned a small stateside following thanks to YouTube videos of her lateral-thinking ventriloquist act.

Conti apprenticed early in life to British experimental theater guru and roustabout Ken Campbell and in fact the two carried on a May-December romance for years. Conti’s beautiful debut film, Her Master’s Voice, is a tribute of sorts to her former lover and mentor, and one of the best hidden gems you’ll find on DVD and digital this year. Voice won an Audience Award at this year’s SXSW film festival, but it’s not the kind of movie that gets theatrical distribution. This is a movie you’ll have to track down.

It’s worth it. Voice is a road trip documentary, essentially, but one in which the camera is pointed directly back at the filmmaker. It also folds in elements of mockumentary and a kind of neo-Vaudevillain performance art.

The film begins with Conti learning of Campbell’s death in 2008, and finding out that old prankster had willed her his large collection of ventriloquist puppets. This happens to be awkward timing for Conti, who has just decided to retire her own ventriloquist act, which Campbell himself initiated and encouraged.

As a final tribute, Conti decides to undertake a pilgrimage to Vent Haven, the Kentucky resting place for puppets of dead ventriloquists. Here, she plans to attend the annual ventriloquist’s convention, and lay to rest Campbell’s own beloved puppets.

Things get very interesting, very quickly. Conti describes her traveling companions — Campbell’s puppets — as “uniquely bereaved.” They are creatures who have literally lost their voice and animating spirit. Throughout the film, Conti has conversations with the various puppets — a randy dog, an old granny, an abusive tuxedo-wearing cad. It’s partly a put-on — Conti really is a gifted ventriloquist and gets good laughs from the scenario she’s set up.

But it’s also an eerie variation on the tragic monologue, as you realize that Conti is literally talking to herself. She’s processing the grief of her old love, and perhaps her fading career. Conti’s other companion on the trip is her own alpha puppet Monk, a smart-ass monkey who gives voice to Conti’s doubts and insecurities.

YouTube video