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Review by Mark Dujsik
I wouldn't imagine myself sitting on the edge of my seat. I wouldn't expect to find myself closing my eyes. And I definitely would never anticipate getting choked up. But I found myself doing all of these while watching a spelling bee. That is the power of Spellbound, a fascinating, engaging, heartfelt, and emotionally affecting documentary about the trials and tribulations, victories and defeats of eight grade school students as they journey the rocky road to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Director Jeffrey Blitz has made a surprisingly suspenseful film that sharply observes the awkwardness of living as an intelligent adolescent in a society dedicated to the lowest common denominator. It presents flash photographs of these kids—all are smart, all are from different walks of life, all handle their social ostracism in their own way, and all want one thing. Their upbringings are the result of poverty or privilege, but they all have been raised to have a strong work ethic. All of them have worked hard to get to the place they're at, and as each of them is eliminated, we empathize completely. Their struggles are real, and their fates are too familiar.
Blitz starts the film with intimate portraits of each of the eight contestants as they win their way into placement in the national competition. There's an inherent faith the filmmakers must have in their subjects, because after all, none of them may win. There's the possibility that one or two of them may not make it to the final contest. The subjects' trust in the filmmakers is also evident, and in scene after scene, the kids and their parents reveal their hopes, pasts, characters within the context of talking about success or failure in a spelling bee. We know these people; we understand their motives. All of them make an impact in some small or significant way. Once Blitz has spent some personal time with these people, he thrusts us into the competition itself. It's a grueling trip to the final round. At one point, a parent recalls how another called the tournament a form of child abuse, and we see that. It's the pressure of having to endure a lengthy, difficult (just try and spell along with some of these words) contest in which elimination is a single wrong letter away. Even when the kids know a word, they still take their time—asking for definitions, origins, uses in a sentence—just to make sure they get it right.
Our involvement is heightened, though, mainly because we know the participants—some of them more than others. Emily Stagg is humble and sees herself wanting in many other things (in her choir, she knows everyone else sings better than her), but spelling is something she's good at. Angela Arenivar's father brought his family over the border into Texas, not to better himself but to for the benefit of his children. Ted Brigham comes off a little conceited, but when you see his rural Missouri upbringing and a single look from a kid in the hallway at school, it's understandable why. Nupur Lala is just a smart, polite kid, who plays the violin incredibly well and deserves some recognition. Neil Kadakia studies every day for his one and only shot at winning. Ashley White affected me the most with her life in D.C. There's a bomb threat at her school (with signs discouraging the possession of guns on the grounds) the day the crew follows her. Her mother notes how her daughter isn't getting nearly enough attention; the negative gets the attention in the press. April DeGideo has been working on spelling since childhood. Her parents, who she compares to Archie and Edith Bunker, are a fun pair. Finally, there's Harry Altman. What can I say about Harry? He's a bursting ball of energy with lots to say and enough breath control to say it (about the boom mike: "This thing isn't edible, is it?").
These kids, their families, and their teachers create a portrait of modern America, beyond the clear observation that competition is more vital here than elsewhere in the world. All of them have opportunity, and it's no surprise that many of the parents are grateful for the prospect of winning fame and notoriety for their intelligence. Neil and Nupur's families are from India, where, Neil's father notes, they wouldn't have such a chance. Indeed, in America, Neil and Nupur's families have risen to a reasonably well-off economic stature, and when you hear Mr. Kadakia say that it only takes hard work to make it in this country, we think of Ashley and hope that sentiment is true. Looking at the dedication of these families is inspiring. They want the best for their children, and never once did I believe any of these parents had ulterior, selfish motives for their child's success. The teachers and coaches are another worthwhile angle to explore, as they are genuinely excited for their students. The fact that they treat a child that has determination, a strong work ethic, and a goal as a small miracle is a little depressing, though.All of these kids—even the ones Blitz does not follow—have stories. We begin to notice it as the faces of the eliminated flash across the screen. We recognize their shock, disappointment, sadness, embarrassment, and, sometimes, relief at the idea of never having to endure it again. When they freeze after getting a word, the tension is palpable; we want them to succeed. Spellbound reminds us that human desire is never trivial, even if it is for the seemingly trivial. It's a timely love letter to education, which, if local area signs congratulating their respective champs are any indication, is needed now more than ever. And it seems to ask, why bother creating fictional characters when there are people like Harry Altman in the world?
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.