As a documentary chronicling five people's strive for success in a tough, decidedly unconventional profession, "Dumbstruck" is as passionate as its human subjects. Though centering on ventriloquism, it is clear that director Mark Goffman's film could just as easily be about anything. No matter what we hope and dream of becoming in life, it is often a tough, at times frustrating, climb to make one's markand a livingdoing what it is each of us love to do. Inspiring and a little melancholy, "Dumbstruck" is fascinating for its duration, but could have no doubt dug deeper into the lives of its likable true-life underdogs. By following them for just one yearand whittling that down to less than an hour and a halfthere isn't quite enough time to get a full, uncompromised glimpse into their day-to-day travails. At the same time, where they ultimately will end up is still a work in progress, their open endings authentic to the reality it is portraying.
Opening and closing with the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, Goffman narrows his gaze on a quintet of aspiring ventriloquists. 31-year-old former beauty pageant winner Kim Yeager travels around performing for schools and youth centers, but feels suffocated by her small town surroundings and keeps hoping for that one big break. Working ventriloquists are aware that getting signed to a cruise ship is the true sign that you've really made it, and Kim hopes to get a chance to audition on an upcoming vacation with her sister. For Dan Horn, he has successfully made the leap to cruise ships, but with this comes plenty of sacrifices, not the least being the months it keeps him apart from his wife and children. Wilma Swartz's love for this offbeat art has led to most of her family disowning her. Facing eviction from her home, she has to find a way to earn at least $1,700 if she hopes to keep a roof over her head. 13-year-old Dylan Burdette is just starting out, attempting to get signed with a talent agency but still rough around the edges. He's got a gift for ventriloquism, but his lack of outward confidence is a stumbling block he will have to get over if he hopes to move further with his most beloved hobby. Meanwhile, Terry Fator stands as a shining example to the rest of them that dreams can, indeed, come true. As the 2007 winner of "America's Got Talent," the then-42-year-old began playing shows in Las Vegas and ultimately signed a 5-year, $100-million contract with the Mirage Resort and Casino. His show is now one of the hottest tickets on the Strip, and not even Terry himself can quite believe it.
"Dumbstruck" merely scratches the surface of its premise, but nevertheless shines a light on the legitimate struggles that people hoping to make a living as ventriloquists face within a highly limited market. Their dummiesand the personalities they give thembecome real to them, so when they fail they feel like they are letting their other voice down as well. Each of the central five subjects carves out a sympathetic place for him or herself in the picture, but it is Kim Yeager who most lingers and lives within the audience. A woman who always seems to be on the verge of moving up before getting knocked back down again, she is an infectious, funny, touching, and altogether genuine person whom the viewer hopes will be given the shot she deserves. She's more than paid her dues. The common, identifiable goal of achieving the American Dream is a huge part of what "Dumbstruck" is all about. Does the topic break new ground here? No. But it is achingly universal.