If you’re anything like me, when someone mentions “ventriloquist” the first thing your mind conjures is that priceless scene in “Best in Show” in which Christopher Guest does an unconvincing routine in the back of an RV. At just the right moment, the dummy’s eyes look at Guest seemingly of their own accord and the effect is hilarious. Now imagine watching a similar scene but having it be not only serious, but true.
“Dumbstruck” follows a variety of ventriloquists (“vents” for short) as they take their acts on what they hope is the road to fame and fortune. The film centers on the annual “Vent Haven” competition in Kentucky, and features performers very young, very strange and very successful (exhibit A: Terry Fator, winner of “America’s Got Talent,” who now has a $100 million contract and his own theater at a Las Vegas hotel).
The film does a good job of building the profile of its subjects and gives an especially in-depth picture of what the ventriloquism industry—such as it is—is really like. We meet one female performer who refers to her dummies as her “children,” and dreams of performing on a cruise ship. Another subject does, in fact, perform on cruise ships for a living, and over the course of the film his marriage unravels because of it. There’s a young boy with an uncomfortable father who auditions (unsuccessfully) for a circus company, a very odd older woman on the brink of homelessness, and Mr. Fator, the standout, who goes from rags to riches in what must be the unlikeliest way possible.
What the film lacks is a willingness to debate the pros and cons of the trade; the performers’ foibles and circumstances are presented totally uncritically, even when it would really enrich the film if these things were fleshed out (why, for instance, does the young white boy choose a to use a black dummy?). It’s clear that ventriloquism—like professional magic, or any other unorthodox performance art—is a magnet for people who feel disenfranchised from mainstream society. That the film displays this fact so clearly and yet doesn’t do anything with it is something of a disappointment. Hearing Terry Fator and his dummy sing the Etta James classic “At Last,” however, never gets old.