You just gotta love sub-culture documentaries. You know the ones, in-depth looks at groups that operate on the fringes, that do things for love, not money, that bring together like-minded individuals, that champion eccentricity. Films like Trekkies, King of Kong, and Riding Giants. You can learn a lot from these films, about how to work hard, about how to follow your dream, about how to rise above the naysayers. Add Dumbstruck to this list.
Dumbstruck lets us into the world of ventriloquists (“vents”), revolving around the latest Vent Haven Convention, taking place in Kentucky, where performers of varying degrees of talent and success meet up yearly. Dumbstruck mainly focuses on five of these people and the five different paths they are on. Some have hopes of fame and fortune, and some have much more modest goals, only looking to cheer people up in hospitals and schools. Few make a living at this, no surprise.
Then, of course, some do. As in Terry Fater, whom we meet, and who reaches the top of his game in signing a $100 million five-year Vegas contract as a ventriloquist. Admittedly, he’s very good. Heck, be the best at what you do, the absolute best, and you’ll make it. The rest of ‘em? Supper clubs, cruise ships, middle schools, that’s the ceiling. It’s the art, the show, the audience reaction, that drives these folks. Like 13-year-old Dylan Burdette, a youngster already hooked, looking to improve, looking to mold his talent, showing that a passion can grab anyone, at any age.
And, as artists of a sort, most pay a price to do what makes them happy. In Dumbstruck, divorce, ridicule, abandonment by family, financial dire straights and disappointment dog our subjects. Puppetry ain’t for the weak. Yet they soilder on, undaunted. Writer/Director Mark Goffman shows the skill it takes to work these puppets, and the hours and hours of practice that is needed to pull it off. He follows the vents about their daily lives, allowing for what makes good documentaries so powerful, the fly-on-the-wall authenticity of what you’re seeing. There’s a poignancy that Goffman has captured, you care for these people, you hope it all works out for them. This is serious business to the performers, and Goffman never looks down at them, never makes fun, though that would be easy to do. He seems just as intrigued by it all as I was. (What was missing from Dumbstruck was some kinda brief history of ventriloquists and how the form started and matured. That would have helped to fill out the subject some. A quibble).
Like the best documentaries, Dumbstruck inspires. The five ventriloquists Hoffman focuses on hold tight to what matters to them, costs be damned. Seeing what they go through, how much they care, makes you want to get off your ass and DO SOMETHING. I mean, if you aren’t following your dreams, then what’s the point?