The National Spelling Bee makes for a riveting film experience.
Thursday, June 19, 2003
Photo: Mind Bender: Spelling geeks play themselves (above and below right) in this charming documentary.
As good, old-fashioned dorkfests go, it doesn''t get much better than the National Spelling Bee, with its arcane words, bespectacled competitors, and stinging little bell. But as one interview subject points out, the Bee represents the fundamental American belief in education and hard work as a means to a better life, and the eight children documentarian Jeff Blitz follows through the competition reflect that idea.
The first half of the film introduces us to these young protagonists. "My life is like a movie," says Ashley, an adorable young black girl, as she trots through the D.C. projects where she lives, "because I go through trials and tribulations, and then I finally overcome." In Perrytown, Texas, a Mexican immigrant who speaks no English takes pride in his daughter Angela, a natural speller whose accomplishments make up for all his sacrifice. A boy in affluent San Clemente, Calif., trains for the bee like a prizefighter, studying 4,000 words a day with his self-made millionaire father, while a quirky Midwestern kid shrugs off his chance of winning, admitting he''s better at math.
Blitz juxtaposes these economically and ethnically diverse subjects, not in a mean or mocking way, but to show that intelligence and ambition touch all their lives. We get enough of their back-stories that we feel invested in their success, and as the competition kicks off in the film''s second half, we feel almost a split loyalty among them. I must admit my favorite was April, a shy bookworm who can''t help but give voice to her worst expectations. "I''ll probably lose tomorrow," she mumbles to the camera with the forced smile of someone used to losing but not content with it.
To watch these kids succeed--defying even their own expectations--is to witness the profound impact that academic success can have on the young psyche. But the opposite is true as well. To see the kids stutter and stumble, to see the terrified quiver of uncertainty pass across their brow is to remember the words of one spectator, who said she thought the Bee was "a form of child abuse." But most of the kids aren''t tortured, they''re challenged--and they seem to feel (perhaps for the first time) genuinely at home among the geeks and proud of their own peculiar excellence.
As the elimination rounds barrel on, Spellbound becomes as tense as any classic nail-biter, and as good, old-fashioned drama goes, it doesn''t get much better than Spellbound. (The world premiere of Spellbound took place at SXSW Film 2002, where it received the Jury Award for Best Documentary.)
Spellbound [4 stars]
Directed by: Jeff Blitz
Year Released: 2002
(Rated G, 95 min.)