Spellbound (2003)

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 06/10/03 00:27:51

"The word on the street"
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: In 1862 the English critic John Ruskin penned a plea for cooperation, citing competition as one of the “laws of death”. His warning evidently failed to make it across the Atlantic, since present-day Americans appear capable of transforming practically anything into a competitive event, even something as innocuous as the school-age spelling bees that were never intended to be anything more than a pleasant diversion for bored students.

Lest you think I exaggerate, I draw your attention to the following excerpt from the official site for Spellbound, a documentary about the suffering inherent in the pursuit of linguistic perfection:

“The annual National Spelling Bee, now a highly rated event on ESPN, is … a breath-bating, nail-biting face-off among hundreds of teens who train as rigorously as any Olympic athlete and who are every bit as heroic in their quest for glory.” I’m not sure if the person who wrote that sentence can spell “hyperbole”, but you might be surprised to learn that it’s not too far removed from the truth.

The set-up is simple: filmmaker Jeff Blitz scrutinised the form of the 1999 NSB contestants with the zeal of a racetrack junkie, selecting eight likely lads and lasses to front the camera in the name of human interest. Fortunately for Blitz, most of them turned out to be reasonably interesting individuals - ranging across a diverse cultural cross-section of the American population, our budding wordsmiths provided the filmmakers with the opportunity to include some mildly diverting asides on the finer points of parenting, America’s status as the “home of the second chance”, and the loneliness that partners any magnificent obsession.

So it is that you will be privy to the story of Angela, the daughter of an illegal Mexican immigrant who receives little training from her hard-working old man by virtue of the fact that he can’t speak a word of English. Then there’s Neil, an intense and driven young Indian whose parents seem to be under the impression that winning the NSB is only a notch below mounting the podium at the Nobel Prize ceremony. Most of the others fall somewhere in between, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Harry, an endearingly hyperactive soul who appears to be on day release from wherever they keep mildly demented kids with unusually advanced spelling skills. None of them provide any lasting insights into the human condition, but they’re a generally likeable (if occasionally precocious) bunch, and by the time the competition starts in earnest you’ll be behind them all the way.

Blitz sidesteps the question of whether the contestants’ efforts amount to a colossal waste of time, given that spelling ludicrous words is a skill that would seem to confer few real-world benefits (especially now that spell checkers have done for spelling gurus what calculators did to the boffins who once earned praise for multiplying 340 and 264 in their heads). The subjects rarely know the meaning of the words they’re committing to memory, and they don’t even use their knowledge to practice the Queen’s English, littering their conversations with the same colloquialisms as the loudmouthed kids who bug the hell out of you on the peak hour trains. However, we might well ask how whacking a small white ball around a neatly manicured lawn enhances one’s personal development, and since anything has to be a better use of time than watching reruns of The Simpsons it’s better to just put the question aside and enjoy the show.

For the uninitiated, the National Spelling Bee is a competition which eschews a lucrative payday and lasting fame in favour of celebrating the hard work of the contestants. It’s based around an elimination format which raises the difficulty with each successive round – one wrong letter and you’re on the plane home with the tinny sound of a reception-desk bell still ringing in your ears, which is why it’s perversely amusing to witness the look on the competitor’s faces when they’re asked to spell “logorrhoea” or “kookaburra”. Blitz chose his subjects well, to the extent that you’re on the edge of your seat all the way down the line, cheering your favourites and groaning with heartfelt sympathy as one by one they take the long walk into obscurity.

I’m also pleased to report that there’s a gratifying level of sportsmanship on display. I was expecting this to be another film about evil parents who turn their offspring into self-important little bastards (a.k.a. the Teen Beauty Pageant Syndrome), but for the most part the contestants’ kin are exactly as they should be – supportive, but well aware that the result isn’t going to change the world (one couple even vow to take their son down a peg if he becomes conceited, which might help him make a few more friends in the future). This attitude is reflected in the conduct of the eliminated competitors, all of whom appear genuinely pleased to have simply made it to the finals. It’s a refreshing antidote to the notion that middle-class American teenagers are in dire need of a reality check, and might just restore a little of your much-abused faith in the youth of today.

Spellbound isn’t going to win any fans amongst those who prefer documentaries to canvass important issues, but it’s an entertaining and occasionally absorbing film about the pleasure of doing something well for no better reason than because you can. Blitz and his subjects remind us that hard work without expectation of reward is an underrated concept, so if you don’t mind being made to feel foolish by a bunch of kids half your age it’s definitely time well spent.

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