Spellbound

Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala

Director: Jeffrey Blitz

The National Spelling Bee is a phenomenon in America. 9,000,000 children from across the country are entered into the competition. This number is whittled down to 249 who assemble in Washington DC for a two-day final where one contestant will be crowned champion. The rules are simple – in each round each contestant is called up one by one to spell a word. Spell it correctly and the contestant can take a seat and wait for the next round. Spell it incorrectly and the judges ring a bell and the contestant is out of the competition. Jeff Blitz’s quirky, but touching, documentary follows the fortunes of eight contestants as they prepare for the 1999 Spelling Bee final.

The film is divided neatly into two halves. The first half introduces, one by one, the eight extraordinary and unconnected children, who come from all over the US. We visit them in their hometowns and are given their background stories through revealing and humorous interviews with the children themselves, their parents, their siblings and their teachers. So we zip across America, from one-horse-towns in Missouri and Texas, to the sun-kissed opulence of California, via the housing projects of Washington DC. As varied as the locations are the 8 children themselves, who include the exquisitely laid back and taciturn Ted, the downbeat and rather lonely figure of April, and the hilarious Harry, who almost steals the show with his relentless playfulness. This first half is handled so skilfully, and the interviews so insightful that the film becomes every bit as rich a mosaic of contemporary American life as Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.

The second half sees the eight children, who we now know well, along with the other 241 contestants, assembled in Washington for the two-day grand final. This final is surprisingly gripping, especially as we have eight people to root for.

Without knowing why, I was expecting this film to be a cynical and mocking treatment of the spelling bee and it’s young contestants. I am very happy to report, however, that this is not the case. Director Jeff Blitz has moulded an incredibly tender and affectionate account of the competition, and he has an unmistakable admiration for his subjects. There are plenty of wonderfully funny moments but jokes are not made at anyone’s expense.

Another thing that impressed me about this film is how it unexpectedly builds up to become a sincere and spirited defence of the American dream. A handful of the parents featured are immigrants from Asia and South America and they talk movingly of the vast opportunities that America has offered them, and, more importantly, their children. This all culminates in a touching and well-judged sequence near the end, precisely before the winning word (logorrhea, in case you’re interested) is set to be spelt out, in which Blitz edits together the most poignant moments from his assembled footage to create a powerful pro-USA message, but one which doesn’t contain the slightest whiff of jingoism or hyperbole.

5 out of 6 stars

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