Ventriloquism is one of those things that gets somewhat popular, usually due to a single breakout performer, every few years, before floating back to the obscurity where it usually lives. As such, there’s a lot of negative stigma to ventriloquists. It has the perception of being a trade of cruise ship performers, Vegas b-side acts, and odd little people talking to a puppet. Everyone’s fascinated by ventriloquists at some point in their lives, usually before the age of ten. That said, it’s still an interesting talent, and a difficult one to master, so it really shouldn’t be put down entirely.
That’s one of the biggest strengths of the new documentary Dumbstruck, that ability to shine a light on these guys in order to prove that ventriloquists aren’t just some pack of weirdos waiting to play another kid’s birthday party. Ok, some are a little weirder than others. But c’mon, they’re all human.
Dumbstruck follows five different “vents,” as they refer to themselves at their annual convention. The first, Terry Fator, you’ve probably heard of, as he’s a big headliner in Las Vegas and the winner of the 2007 America’s Got Talent competition. He’s the rare case: the guy that managed to turn a niche interest into national acclaim. The others show varying facets of people struggling to live their dreams as ventriloquists. We have Dylan, a thirteen year old just beginning to hone his craft; Dan, a cruise ship performer; Kim, a woman struggling to break out of the rut in her career; and Wilma, easily the most oddball of the group, who struggles even to make the barest of livings by performing to church groups and old folks homes. We watch them over the course of a year, between their performances at the Vent Haven convention in Kentucky, as they try to make it.
That’s pretty much the entire movie, the old hat tale of struggling performers trying to make it in a harsh world. Dumbstruck doesn’t pull its punches, either. Director Mark Goffman makes specific choices to show these five performers through some truly poor times. Talent scouts don’t show up to auditions, relationships fail, auditions that do go ahead are bungled badly. As you may have guessed, performing within such a fringe medium makes it that much harder to power through the bad times, as it becomes abundantly clear that people like Terry, who has become a millionaire as a result of his talents, is an exceptionally rare case. It makes this movie a difficult one to write about, as the central message of the film is, “Show biz is hard.” Granted, it shows that very clearly, and very well, but in a documentary about ventriloquism, it’ something of a given that the subjects aren’t exactly going to be runaway successes. It’s a hard game, but these people are out there following their dreams. With Terry Fator as the obvious exception, it doesn’t necessarily go well for everyone. Even Terry can admit that his fame and fortune was basically the equivalent of winning the lottery; he may be exceptionally talented, but at the end of the day, his success was a roll of the dice away from never happening at all.
Here we arrive at the film’s cardinal sin. The people we follow in Dumbstruck are all interesting, compelling people. There’s no denying that. There’s a lot of good material here, watching them try every day to move forward with their dreams. It’s good, quality human drama. The problem, then, is that the central message of Dumbstruck is that, as I wrote before, show business is hard. But that’s it. We watch these people struggle and strive for anything. Not greatness, but anything. All they want is the opportunity to share their talent with the world. Hell, they’d settle for a hundred people on a cruise ship. It’s interesting to watch these characters, but we don’t get quite a good enough peek into their psyches to really understand the struggle they’re going through. We see they have, in most cases, dysfunctional personal/family lives, difficulty meeting non-vents, and such problems. The only one in the film we really get to know is Wilma, as she has easily the most tragic, and eventually the most inspiring story.
Dumbstruck is definitely worth your time, as you’re not likely to find many other ventriloquism documentaries this honest about just how hard it is to make it in their business. It opens today in New York City and Washington D.C., with other releases staggered throughout the country over the coming months(which you can find more information on at www.dumbstruckthemovie.com). It’s not going to set the world on fire with vent-fever or anything, but it’s a quality story about something most people really don’t even think about.