There’s a special kind of frustration and disappointment that comes with an obsessive ambition that doesn’t gel with society’s ideas of what someone’s ambitions should be. The generally conventional idea, in American society at least, is that one should earn good grades in high school so that one can go to a good college. During college, one should join clubs and find a plum internship that paves the way for a grad degree, which should hopefully lead to a job as an attorney or a doctor or a respectable/anonymous post as a something at a huge corporation somewhere. The democratization that the Internet has afforded various fringe activities (or, more specifically, basically the arts) has also narrowed the already narrow potential of making a living with a creative outlet. After all, anyone can be a singer or filmmaker or acoustic guitar player (or, ahem, a film critic) these days, so why the hell would anyone pay for it?
It’s bad enough to tell someone that you want to be a filmmaker or a musician, and to politely weather the condescension passed off as concern that inevitably follows. The subjects of the new documentary Dumbstruck have it much worse, however, as their ambition spurs many to question their literal sanity. Mark Goffman’s film follows five ventriloquists, and the novelty here is that two of the five are actually quite successful, especially when you consider the opportunities available to the profession. The other three ventriloquists are trying to break into the field, and they’re paying the sorts of dues that are universal to the existence of the classic struggling artist. The aspiring ventriloquists play embarrassing, deserted gigs at hospitals and Wal-Marts while calling entertainment companies up to audition with new material. They hire new managers and writers, shaping and fine-tuning bits in an effort to shape a routine or character or gimmick that will hopefully connect with larger audiences.
Terry Fator is the superstar of the ventriloquist—or “vent”—world, having parlayed an unexpected win on America’s Got Talent into a personal theater and nine figure contract at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Fator, clearly, represents the out-of-this-world boy-makes-good story that haunts the other vents. Dan Horn, another veteran, is the other success story, having landed a contract with a cruise ship that affords him exposure and stability at the price of continued life on the road.
A cruise ship deal, we learn, is generally the golden goose of the ventriloquist profession, and that’s what former beauty queen Kim Yeager pursues over the course of the film. The problem, from what we’re shown, is a fatal lack of talent. Yeager’s characters are flimsy and unvaried, and she hasn’t, despite years of practice, been able to shake a crippling self-consciousness that can mar amateurs of all disciplines. Wilma Swartz is a sadder case. Abandoned by most of her family, Wilma struggles to raise money to keep her house, which she’s about to lose to accumulating tax debt. The fifth vent, Dylan Burdette, is even less promising than Kim, but he’s 13 so perhaps there’s time and hope.
Goffman has selected performers that collectively represent the traditional stages of honing a performance (newcomer, struggling traveler, seasoned pro) as well as the accompanying risks and potential rewards of following a dream that promises to honor your heart over your checkbook. The film is refreshingly unsentimental, as we’re allowed see the misery that a dream can cause, and, at times, we’re sympathetic to the disapproving or baffled parents or relatives who try to suggest that maybe another venture is the true calling. (Even Terry and Dan are clearly haunted by the years of ridicule and poverty that paved their way for their success.) Dumbstruck, by refuting the absurd notion of “overnight success”—which still plagues our country, particularly in this age of said Internet democratization—actually pays more convincing tribute to those willing to honor their interior calling regardless of the hardship. The film isn’t very exciting cinematically (the usual talking heads approach), but it’s human and moving, and it does full justice to the contradictory, yet perfectly coherent, sentiment, voiced by Dan, that haunts the film: “Even when I’m not happy as an entertainer, I’m happy as an entertainer.”