Everyone Wants the Last Word.
In an age of spell-checking text programs and a steadily diminishing regard for proper spelling and grammar (it's the rare email or instant message these days that doesn't read as if it were typed by someone wearing mittens), the idea of a spelling competition has become almost quaint. Before sitting down to watch Spellbound, a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee, I didn't expect to see much more than a dry academic exercise, like one of those British quiz shows where bespectacled contestants scribble silently at their desks while the host drones out math problems. But this skillfully directed and edited 2002 Oscar-nominated film not only makes the spelling bee as exciting and suspenseful as the Super Bowl, but also presents a fascinating portrait of smart kids and their parents that's thoroughly American.
Spellbound, in what is by now a familiar enough structure to be parodied (think Christopher Guest's Best in Show mockumentary), is divided roughly into two halves. In the first half, we meet eight of the 248 spelling bee contestants, as the documentary profiles their home lives and families. The second half deals with the competition itself. Spellbound doesn't break any new ground in its treatment of its subject, and first-time director Jeffrey Blitz maintains a mostly neutral editorial perspective (there isn't any overt criticism of the more, shall we say, ambitious parents who seem a little overeager to enjoy vicarious glory through their kids). But Blitz and editor Yana Gorskaya are deft storytellers and have shaped what must have been a mountain of footage into a coherent and compelling narrative.
What elevates spelling competitions from other academic contests, I think, is that it's not strictly about rote memorization or reasoning skills. If it were, then kids like Spellbound's Neil Kadakia, an Indian-American teen whose severely type-A father (a clearly driven, self-made man) has created an astoundingly thorough training regimen for his son—even hiring a spelling coach—would win these things hands down. But what becomes clear from watching the competition in action is that so much of the success or failure comes down to sheer luck; one losing contestant muses that she would have gotten an easier word, had the previous contestant not dropped out. This element of chance—all the training in the world can't ensure victory if you get a word that's completely foreign to you—makes spelling much more of a sport, one that is as highly charged with emotion as any World Series game.
It is also a sport that is uniquely suited to the English language, that weird, logic-defying melting pot of cultural influences. English is hard—especially when it's not English at all, but some Greek or French word adopted into our language. This isn't just a linguistic exercise, but an American story; Spellbound's cast of young contestants is drawn from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, from the inner-city African-American girl from D.C. to the pampered Connecticut WASP princess, and they are all very much American. The competition itself demonstrates the extent to which America is a cultural sponge, soaking up influences—and the tough, complicated words that describe them—from all over the world. (In what is surely a quintessential American immigrant moment, Neil, whose father emigrated from India, is thrown for a loop by the word "Darjeeling.")
The group of kids rounded up for the documentary are indeed a diverse bunch, and viewers will surely relate to at least one of them, whether it's the brooding young man from Missouri who's one of a smattering of smart kids at his small-town school, or April, a shy and quietly charming girl from Pennsylvania who compares her working class parents to Archie and Edith Bunker. You'll also likely find at least one kid to root against; mine was Emily, the rich girl from Connecticut—it wasn't Emily who annoyed me as much as her benignly snobby parents, although it's hard to root for a girl who casually discusses how she was going to bring her au pair to the competition the previous year, after visiting with a lower-class kid who sees winning the competition as a way to help escape the inner city. While all of the contestants stand to gain from winning the spelling bee, it's clearly more of a stepping stone for some than for others. (Although of course the disappointment when the kids lose isn't as bitter knowing that they are all extraordinarily gifted young people who will no doubt be successful in life.)
While Spellbound is a riveting document for its suspenseful, "there can be only one" subject matter, it's admittedly a little light, and a trifle uncritical, when it comes to digging beneath the surface to see what makes these kids—and their parents—tick. While it's self-evident that many of these kids are the beleaguered victims of stage parents, it's only in occasional snatches and candid moments that we get a view of what's going on in these kids' heads that isn't crafted for the camera. You feel like there's a whole documentary film to be made solely on spelling machine Neil, whose affectionate but slightly scary father has hired people in India to chant and pray for Neil's success, and who will pay them a bonus if Neil wins (the unspoken part of that is that they will continue to live in poverty otherwise…but, you know, no pressure or anything). As compelling as the film is, it's also a little too gentle to be truly probing or truthful.
Columbia's presentation of Spellbound on DVD is solid, with a crisp, vivid full screen transfer—the feature was shot on video—and a mostly clean image that's occasionally marred by excess edge enhancement. Audio is presented with English and French language Dolby 2.0 stereo tracks, and French subtitles (which come in handy if you're playing along at home and need to know how "heleoplankton" is spelled).
There's a nice set of extras on the disc, beginning with an audio commentary by director Blitz, editor Gorskaya, and sound engineer Sean Welch that's chatty and provides some interesting tidbits about how they chose the kids. Also look for some interesting bonus features centering around kids who were interviewed but left out of the film. (In one case, involving a 10-year-old contestant, it's a shame she wasn't included in the original feature.) There's a text-only profile of the kids and where they are today, accompanied by updated photos.
Spellbound did very well commercially, and it's not hard to see why. There's a built-in suspense factor when dealing with an event like a spelling bee that is so prone to unknowable developments and in which one little mistake—the difference of one letter—can spell utter defeat for a child. Even if Blitz only scratches the surface of the theme of children and competition in American culture, as entertainment alone it's well worth seeing. It certainly makes me wish I'd spent more quality time with my Speak'n Spell as a kid.
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