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Spellbound (2003)

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 04/09/03 15:14:52

"The finest documentary ever made on the fine art of speling."
5 stars (Awesome)

This is the sort of documentary film that will turn people into documentary film fans. (I hope.) So simple in concept yet so overloaded with sincere emotion and fascinating subject material; I hate to trot out this old chestnut but: I really didn't want this movie to end.

Eight American kids from across the country are visited by a crew of documentary filmmakers. Why? Because these kids can spell! Each a former city champion and each on their way (they hope) for a return trip to the National Spelling Bee Championships in Washington D.C., these kids represent two of America's most beloved traits: intelligence and insanity.

Yes insanity. What else would you call it when a 12-year-old girl would rather study her vocabulary lists then spend time with friends mall-hopping? How else to describe the unrelenting tension those kids must feel up on stage - trying to spell something like recidivism or obsequious? Since way back in the mid-20's the annual Scipps Howard National Spelling Bee has been quite the small-town obsession.

And you won't believe how much fun it is to watch from the inside.

Documentarian Jeffrey Blitz chose eight youths, each of whom did well in previous Bees, and asked if he could film their 'study processes'. We meet contestants like the sweet and humble Ashley White, the socially-adept-yet-still-very-brainy Angela Arenivar, and the stunningly hyperactive (and therefore howlingly entertaining) Harry Altman.

These kids could not possibly be more different - except that they're among the finest young spellers in the entire country. Each of the eight kids are given a 5 to 7-minute backstory/intro, while the film's second half is comprised of footage from the 1999 Spelling Bee Championship, complete with parental reactions and nearly unbearable tension.

And it's tense because Blitz and Company present their subjects in such a matter-of-fact, warts-and-all way that we can't help but root for every single one of 'em. The easy way to make for some entertaining footage would be to poke fun at the down-home country folk or mock the more affluent participants for having lots of money to spend on myriad spelling tutors. But poking fun is not what Spellbound is about. (Well, OK, maybe a little...)

It's a testament to how powerful the brain is, particularly a young one. I consider myself a pretty damn good speller and I was blown AWAY by some of the obscure multi-syllabic words these kids manged to spell.

And after meeting all eight kids, there's no way you'll want to miss the competition! Spellbound absolutely breezes by, offering many moments of humor and familial weirdness before winding up in D.C. where things get even funnier, more intense and even rather sad. Rare to find a doco that covers this much emotional terrain but I guess that's what you get when you film one small and fascinating segment of real life.

Yes, the prospect of watching a documentary about Spelling Bee Participants did not exactly sound like the most thrilling way to spend 90 minutes. Sometimes I guess we just need to be pushed into seeing a movie. That's why we have film festivals. And movie critics. ;)

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