Spellbound (2002)

"OK"

Spellbound (2002) Review


Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound focuses its gaze on eight children as they make their way to the annual National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. The subjects Blitz chose for his fascinating documentary come in all shapes and sizes - combined, they represent a variety of points along the U.S.'s educational, financial, and social spectrums - and yet the film is primarily pleasurable because of the commonality found among the members of this motley group. These impressively intelligent pre-teens haven't all reached the National Spelling Bee via the same route, but what's gotten them there is an intense motivation and thirst for knowledge, educational excellence, and competition.

Blitz's film spends its first half introducing us to the kids (and their families), and the second half focusing on their performances at the Nationals. The director takes us inside the wildly different homes of these eight spelling champion hopefuls, and what he reveals is a cross-section of American youth - from Ashley, a cheerful African-American girl who lives with her single mom in Washington's inner city, to Angela, whose immigrant Mexican parents don't speak any English, to Emily, who lives an affluent and privileged life in New Haven, Connecticut. Some, such as an East Indian boy named Neil, have loving but strict parents who push their children to study tirelessly for the contest. Others, such as Angela and Pennsylvania-born April, seem to have developed their remarkable work habits without any parental guidance. Many have siblings with prior success at the Nationals, while one, a strapping Missourian named Ted, had never even heard of the Bee until he won a regional spelling match a few months prior to the big event.

Besides an aptitude for spelling, what makes these kids alike is a shockingly devoted, and sometimes seemingly unhealthy, drive to succeed - as April's effusive parents recount with some bewilderment, their daughter prefers to stay at home on Friday nights to study word origins instead of going to the mall with her friends. As the film segues from its introductions to Washington, D.C., the quietly lurking tension that has hovered over these casual early moments begins to bubble to the forefront (both for the kids and for us in the audience); once the Bee begins, the judge's bell that signals a mistake takes on mythically menacing proportions. Blitz wisely keeps his camera fixated on the faces of each speller, capturing the elation of triumph (usually characterized by wide, ecstatic eyes and an open-mouthed grin) and the disappointment of a costly mistake (one girl, after a wrong answer, resignedly mutters "Crap!"). One wrong letter spells instant elimination, meaning that the pressure of each successive round is exquisite; watching the National Spelling Bee is certainly more exciting than anything the NHL has to offer.

Spellbound benefits from keen foresight, as Blitz's subjects remain in the running into the Bee's late rounds. Unfortunately, outside of a few socio-economic tidbits and a bounty of one-liners - an Indian mother, discussing her family's efforts to help her son prepare, remarks, "When you fight in a war, everyone has the same goal" - the rather perfunctory portraits of each participant merely skim the surface. The kids' enthusiasm makes them easy to root for, but as each is eliminated from the tournament, it's not uncommon for us to find their reactions in defeat surprising - not because their behavior is out of character, but because we only know them from a scant few interview snippets. Since some of the kids - including the ultra-hyper Harry and round-the-clock studying Neil - are superb candidates for their own documentaries, one wishes that Blitz had chosen to focus his film on a smaller sampling of competitors. Still, despite its somewhat skin-deep look at these talented youngsters, Spellbound's charm and allure is undeniable. It's the most d-e-l-i-g-h-t-f-u-l documentary you're likely to see this year.



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