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.

Continue reading: Spellbound (2002) Review