On its face, the idea of a documentary that follows around five ventriloquists for two years in order to delve into their stories doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of movie legend.  Most of my knowledge of ventriloquists begins with Willie Tyler and Lester and ends around Chuck Campbell (Jay Johnson) and Bob on the show Soap.  Yet director  Mark Goffman has found a measure of success exploring various subcultures such as the world of spelling bees (Spellbound) and crossword puzzles (Wordplay).

Fort Mitchell, Kentucky is apparently the ventriloquism capital of the world as it’s home to the annual Vent Haven Convention.  There Goffman finds his extraordinary characters who have various levels of emotional attachments to their “dummies”.  Goffman picks four people committed to pursuing ventriloquism professionally.  The fifth case study, Terry Fator, won America’s Got Talent with a ventriloquist act but had always dreamt of going to the convention.

The documentary opens with glimpses into the lives of its subjects, capturing the tensions and reservations of their family.  A beauty pageant winner, Kim Yeager, marches on in pursuit of her dream despite the wishes of her mother.  Dan Horn has found mid-level success, but his long hours/time away from his family is costing him his marriage. All around odd duck, Wilma Swartz, has been cut off by almost all of her family while 13-year-old Dylan Burdette’s dad can’t relate to his son.  Even Fator, who is now a multi-millionaire, finds acceptance from his father elusive.

“I can say things through the characters that if I said, I’d get beat up.” –Wilma

At first it seems counterintuitive for introverts to choose ventriloquism.  They have to be on stage, having to not only be “on” but also funny.  Yet the dummies provide the same sort of safety net or wall that a computer keyboard or avatars do.  It allows them to become or hide behind other personas.  Other than that, their stories echo those of those I know in other fields of art, be they writers, painters, or musicians, which is why Dumbstruck struck especially close to home with me.

The artist finds their identity in their art in the same way other people define themselves through their work.  It’s who they are—ventriloquist, artist, entertainer—and they are locked in pursuit of their art.  Which means they are willing to face the ups and downs of chasing after their dreams and having doors slammed in their faces, all in hopes of finding the one in a million success that Terry Fator found.  As part of honing their craft, they generate material and have to create a character apart from themselves.  They find community in their convention family, a place where they find acceptance.

“I put my dreams on hold for my last relationship.” –Kim

What stood out in the documentary was the disconnect from the ventriloquists by their parents.  Sometimes it was a matter of a well-intended mother wanting their daughters to live a normal life, get married, and have kids.  Sometimes it was a father who was simply lost in how to relate to his son.  Other times it was little more than mean-spirited ostracization by family.

On the flipside, sometimes that disconnect was the artist’s doing.  Pursuing their calling, gifting, and passion even when it defies their parent’s wishes.  Other times they so gave themselves over to the magic of creation, being an artist, and performing that their family became just another sacrifice for their art.

“God uses what gifts you have.” –Wilma’s priest

What would our spiritual life be like without art? A shriveled up and dry experience, devoid of any sense of transcendence and beauty.  Yet it is often difficult for an artist to find their place in the world, much less when faced with the false dichotomy between sacred and secular.  In all things one should think redemptively, and let the renewing your mind be in finding God at work in the culture around us.   The Apostle Paul could walk around Athens, a city full of idols, and still find Jesus (Acts 17).

We come from the same Creator, created in His image, with his creative Spirit, so it’s all right to love art for art’s sake. We can listen to beautiful music and feel God’s presence. We can become lost in a painting and let it wordlessly speak to us. We can get transported by a story and learn lessons about ourselves. That’s the role of the artist, to remind us of our humanity and to remind us of the story we find ourselves in.

Dumbstruck missed out on a potential focus of the film in strictly studying the ventriloquists’ family.  The journey of someone pursuing their dream is a familiar one, but the dream being scrutinized by skeptical family would have been an interesting take on it.  The journey of father’s who feel they are losing their son and trying to come to terms with figuring out how to connect with him and support him would have been fascinating to watch, but that’s a documentary that could have been.  What we do have is this familiar story with unusual characters, and the audience does end up rooting for them.  Despite themselves.  The movie approaches its subjects seriously, with an abject eye, and in no way condescends to or demeans them.  Nor does it ask any questions of the ventriloquists, exploring their minds in more profound ways, from the source of Wilma’s profound loneliness, to why this white teen chooses a black puppet to express himself.

And if Goffman is intent on studying fringe communities, maybe next up will be an examination of furries.