There’s a fine line between a fond portrait of a misunderstood subculture and a freak show, and the documentary Dumbstruck wobbles down that line like an office worker pulled over on the way home from overindulging at happy hour. In the tradition of Trekkies, The King Of Kong, and Wordplay, Dumbstruck centers on a group of people whose lives are consumed with an obsession the rest of the world might find bewildering—in this case, ventriloquism. Beginning and ending at the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, the film follows the ups and downs of five varied “vents”: eccentric Wilma Swartz, former beauty queen Kim Yeager, 13-year-old Dylan Burdette, cruise-ship performer Dan Horn, and Cinderella story Terry Fator, winner of the second season of America’s Got Talent.
A Texan who struggled through 22 years of performing to small crowds in small venues (he tells a story about giving a show to an audience consisting of one 12-year-old boy), Fator is the unlikely superstar of a profession in which the ceiling is otherwise awfully low. Dumbstruck’s other subjects yearn to entertain, but struggle to find audiences, much less opportunities to support themselves off their craft, a realization that casts a pall over the mostly well-intended proceedings. The best a ventriloquist can hope for (other than a one-in-a-million reality-show competition win) are gigs on the cruise circuit. Dumbstruck shows Yeager trying her hardest to break into this world, while Horn performs on ships circling from San Pedro to Mazatlán for weeks at a time, as his marriage falls apart at home.
Dumbstruck’s undercurrents of desperation mean it can’t touch the levels of transcendence that make something like Spellbound, still the best of this mini-genre, so delightful and enduring. The film’s tendency to pull away once its character start their performances adds to the sense that director Mark Goffman knows his money shots will showcase the vents’ oddities rather than their acts. That squirminess is best embodied by Swartz, whose immediate family refuses to speak to her due to her choices surrounding what’s only described as “medical conditions when she was younger.” Swartz performs for groups of sleepy-looking senior citizens armed with walkers, and faces possible eviction from her house. When the community comes to her rescue, she celebrates by organizing a wedding for two of her puppets. The attendees’ mood is celebratory, but at that moment, the film itself feels disturbingly calculated.