Vocal adrenaline

Ventriloquists are a queer bunch, as ‘Dumbstruck’ lovingly revels in

WOODEN YOU LIKE TO KNOW | Wilma, left, has a sad story related to her orientation, but finds odd comfort among vents in ‘Dumbstruck.’

3.5 out of 5 stars
DUMBSTRUCK
Rated PG. 95 mins.
Now playing at Landmark’s
Magnolia Theatre.

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An episode of Family Guy once laid out the hierarchy of the performing art as follows: “Legitimate theater, musical theater, standup, ventriloquism, magic, mime.” I’d tack on juggling, stilt-walking and swallowing flaming arrows, so I guess ventriloquism could have done worse. The point is, beyond the top 3, the list gets into novelty-act territory. Which is exactly what the documentary Dumbstruck explores.

I bet you’ve never heard of a sex scandal involving a “vent” (as they call themselves) because the work it takes to become proficient at throwing your voice aren’t exactly the height of social skills. Vents fall easily into the cliché of awkward nerds who have managed to turn their imaginary friends into careers.

Well, careers of sorts. Until Mesquite man Terry Fator won America’s Got Talent a few seasons back, the last vent you probably thought about was Waylon Flowers. He gave loveable losers hope. Fator is one of those profiled here, as well as Wilma, a woman (apparently trans, though it’s never said outright) whose life is a shambles, but who finds uncommon strength and support from her vent family.

There’s no denying the occasionally heart-warming, human moments of victory and pain, but there’s a slight sadness that creeps in as well. Director Mark Goffman is aiming for mockumentarian Christopher Guest’s tone only with real people, but the fit seems forced. (We may have to keep waiting for Goffman… to hit his stride.)

Still, it’s a quirky and at times delightful look at a fringe of entertainment that takes a lot of skill to master. You want to like these people — they need all the friends they can get.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 6, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens