Considering all the glowing praise this little documentary has gotten, it seemed worthy of inclusion in the NetFlix queue. The notion of an hour and a half foray into the world of National Spelling Bees didn't sound like a terribly exciting premise - but hey, everyone loved this movie, so they must know something I don't. Or maybe I know something they don't - spelling bees are fucking dull.The premise of Spellbound is simple - it follows the lives of 8 kids, of varying ethnic and economic backgrounds, and tracks their progress as they win local and regional spelling bees and head for the nationals. We are introduced to each kid and their families, lingering with each one just long enough to get a feel for what their background and home life is like. Once the key players are all introduced, the documentary progresses to the supposedly nail-biting national finals. Certainly nail-biting for the kids involved, and their often overbearing parents who are rah-rahing on the sidelines, but hardly the stuff of engaging human drama.
Although some of the kids have interesting insights, and there are a few emotional moments as they struggle with tough words or face the fact that they've just been eliminated, most of it is a plodding and dishwater dull exercise in "say word, repeat word, ask for definition, ask for language of origin, spell word, pray to God you're right." Some of the kids are likable, giving us a slight emotional investment, but others (and their parents) are so annoying that it had me praying for early elimination just so I wouldn't have to listen to their prattle. And while there is a bit of fun to be had with trying to guess the word's spelling along with the contestants, there's only so much mileage that can be wrung out of that little side activity. One of the words that came up in the competition was hellebore (a genus of poisonous plant native to Eurasia) - which was ironic, because it was exactly at that point that I realized I was hella bored with this film.The bottom line is that SPELLBOUND is a fluff piece, focusing on a topic that is neither particularly weighty or dramatic or even interesting. And while I was occasionally happy for the kids when they were able to pull some very tough words out of the air, I was far happier when the end credits finally roled.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.