Spellbound (2003)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/29/05 12:56:29

"You never realized spelling could be this compelling."
5 stars (Awesome)

Have you ever watched the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee on ESPN? If you haven’t, you’re truly missing out. It’s indescribably compelling, to the point that if you catch five minutes of it, you may as well kiss the rest of your day goodbye, since you’ll be so drawn in to the event that you won’t want to miss a beat until the champion is crowned.

That sense of suspense, thrills, joy, pride, and fear has been captured marvelously in “Spellbound,” a riveting documentary from filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz. Blitz introduces us to eight contenders for the 1999 Nationals, then, once we feel like we’ve come to know these kids, he unleashes the tension of the actual competition. Like the Bee itself, once the movie begins, there’s no looking away until it’s all over.

It helps that Blitz had chosen eight extraordinary teens - although to be fair, there are no “ordinary” kids in the Spelling Bee. These are the kids that thrive on academic challenges, and I’m certain that had Blitz picked eight other entrants to spotlight, the movie would be just as impressive.

We meet Ted from Missouri, a smart kid who thinks he’s not a great speller (he figures he’s better in math) and who entered the Bee on a whim; Neil from California, an apparent overachiever (in an admirable way) who spends hours with his father on vocabulary drills, and who uses various spelling coaches; and Angela from Texas, with an immigrant father who takes such great pride in seeing his children live a better life. There’s April from suburban Pennsylvania, Emily from upscale Connecticut, and Ashley from inner city D.C., separated by environment but united by great intelligence. For Napur from Florida, the local Hooters put up a sign of local pride for its speller, reading, of course, “congradulations.” And finally, there’s Harry from New Jersey, a delightfully dorky youth who never, ever, ever stops talking.

It’s Harry we see first, long before we’re formally introduced to him. There he stands at the microphone, thinking out loud and grimacing wildly, desperately trying to figure out the correct spelling of his word. And that’s part of the joy - and pain - of watching the Bee. Seeing these youngsters struggle with their brains in front of all the world makes for great drama.

Blitz spends the first half of the film letting us get to know these kids, so when the Bee starts, we feel deeply invested in the outcome. We root for all eight to do the best they can, and when they get eliminated from the brutal competition, we’re upset, but we also feel a touch of pride, because, yes, they did do their best, and just getting this far is worthy of applause. (Of the nine million children who enter the local rounds, only 249 go on to each year’s national finals. To say you’ve made the top two percent? That’s worth a brag or two.)

So there’s drama to be found in the fact that we know these teens, but the Bee also has a drama all its own. For there are no second chances in this contest - one wrong letter, ever, and you’re out. The very structure of the Bee is enough to get one sweating. As if this alone were not enough, we’re later introduced to George Thampy, the eleven-year-old who’s the odds-on favorite to win - an academic force of Apollo Creedian proportions.

As the story progresses, we also get to meet other folks, such as Alex Cameron, the official pronouncer for the Bee, and Frank Neuhauser, who, in 1925, became the very first National Spelling Bee champion. These people (and many others, including an assortment of other past champions) paint the Bee as a slice of Americana, a tribute to the power and importance of education, and yet another strange way of tormenting our children.

That last factor is a tough call. While some may see Neil’s endless coaching and his father’s focused dedication to be too much, too obsessive, others may see it as endearing, a father and son bonding over mental growth. Some may agree with one interviewee’s comments that the Bee is a form of “child abuse,” what with all the stress and anxiety and the eventual agony of defeat. Others may find it refreshing when so many kids leave the stage, beaten and out of the race, they’re happy, not depressed, to have gotten so far. After all, as Napur’s father wisely states, “this is not the most important thing in the world.” It’s just a chance to celebrate smarts in our youth, and what could be better?

For the most part, Blitz merely sits back and allows the story to tell itself, although he does employ some nifty editing techniques from time to time. One stressful competition, for example, is boiled down to a series of eliminating bells and words to be spelled, creating an overwhelming sense of tension in the viewer. The filmmaker’s greatest trick, however, comes at the very end, when we find ourselves in the final round of the Bee. We hear the word, we see the potential champion ponder it a moment... and then we cut away. The winner will not be announced until we get a little more tension in, time stretched with more interviews and comments on the Bee. That’s dastardly work, I tell you, but what a terrific storytelling moment.

There’s not a frame of “Spellbound” that leaves you wanting to look away from the screen, and that’s the key to great filmmaking, be it fiction or documentary. In this story, Blitz has found an endless supply of wonderful characters and gripping moments. 97 minutes doesn’t feel like enough time to spend with these eight youths; we want to follow them even more. And yet, 97 minutes feels just right. Blitz ends his film on a magnificent note, and we leave the film smiling, proud to have known such remarkable people, eager to watch it again, or, better yet, catch the Bee next time it’s on ESPN.

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