Spellbound is the highly acclaimed new documentary about eight talented middle-schoolers who are preparing to compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The film begins by introducing us to each of the gifted young contestants. We glimpse the various study methods each child deploys to cram for the contest, and we are permitted a peek into their families.
We meet a wealthy Indian boy whose father has spent thousands of dollars contracting a battery of language tutors to prep his son in French, Greek, and German word-stems. We also meet a black girl from the D.C. projects who attends public school, memorizes vocab with a Scrabble board, and describes her life as a movie in which the heroine must constantly struggle against adversity. Regardless of economic class, all of the children interviewed see themselves as outcasts and social pariahs. They’re liable to decline invitations to the mall in order to spend an extra five or six hours trolling the dictionary for words like "logorrhea" and "hellebore." The National Spelling Bee is portrayed as a great leveller, a place where smart children from radically different backgrounds are united in competition.
Although there is a lot of fascinating material here, I am wary of Spellbound’s borderline smugness during these opening segments. A great deal is made of the intellectual discrepancy between the eight children and their parents and communities. A misspelled sign at Hooters, congratulating one of the prodigiously talented spellers when she wins a regional spelling contest, is certainly droll. But I felt uneasy, even embarrassed, watching the desperately impoverished mother of another of the contestants failing to correctly pronounce the word "pessimistic." Spellbound’s seeming desire to make spectacle of the intellectual foibles of folks less brainy than its eight young champions gives the film’s utopian message a vaguely sour aftertaste–and allows the first half to play almost like one of Christopher Guest’s withering mockumentaries instead of the more introspective, quirky, Errol Morris-type film I think Spellbound wants to be.
However, the second half of Spellbound is, so to speak, spellbinding. Here we are given the National Bee itself, a grueling competition where the utterance of merely one wrong letter can produce one seriously devestated child. The National makes amazingly riveting cinema, and the film’s director, Jeffrey Blitz, puts the camera exactly where it should be: on the children’s anxiety-riddled faces. Believe it or not, watching 10 year old, ritalin-ready Harry suffer through the five letters of "banns," as in "wedding banns," is far more suspenseful than any of the car chases, sword fights, or gun battles currently smothering our cinema screens.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current film, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.