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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 16.87%
Average: 19.28%
Pretty Bad: 2.41%
Total Crap: 6.02%

8 reviews, 35 user ratings

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Spellbound (2003)
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by Mark Rodger-Snelson

"A totally absorbing and very rewarding experience."
4 stars

In an age where the spell check tool has more or less ruined the importance of knowing how to spell, it is surprising that the annual American National Spelling Bee is still going strong (it started in 1925). In Spellbound, first time feature length director Jeffrey Blitz follows eight contestants from around the country taking the audience on a fascinating and engrossing journey into the heart of the competition.

Not only is Spellbound a documentary about a gruelling test of knowledge, it also offers an interesting insight into the lives and families of eight kids of various racial and economic backgrounds. From Angela, the daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants now living on a cattle ranch in Texas to Emily, a very privileged girl living in a large home in New Haven. The film follows these kids with different lifestyles and motivations for winning the competition. For some the prize money is not very important and it is just the recognition that they crave but for others it could mean the chance of an otherwise unaffordable scholarship.

The first part of the film is built around getting to know these eight kids and their families shortly after each of them has won their regional final. For a single mother living in an apartment in DC, her daughter (Ashley) winning the regional final was the happiest day of her life. When second timer Nupur takes out the regional, her local Hooters restaurant displays a big congratulations on their road sign. Ted is a tall boy from rural Missouri who does not fit in at school and besides his interest in spelling also enjoys collecting weapons (a warning sign perhaps). April’s father admits his life working behind a bar is not a real success story so the pressure is on for her to win. Neil, whose family is of East Indian descent has a father who believes hard work brings success puts his son through a tough study regime involving thousands of words from previous competitions. Then there is Harry who is just plain strange, during interviews he pulls faces, jumps around his bedroom and responds to questions whilst talking like a robot. Some of the characters here are so eccentric that one could forgive themselves for thinking that they were watching a Christopher Guest mockumentory.

Just under an hour into the film, the competition starts and the nail biting begins. Blitz successfully makes you care about each of the participants and whilst their parents brows are sweating you find yourself feeling the pressure too. There’s relief when words such as ‘mercenary’ are called and unbearable tension when the kids are faced with words such as ‘heleoplankton’. Another thing that is evident throughout the competition is that rather than nasty competitive rivalry the children are very supportive of each other and seem to be content just to make it to the finals. They also look happy just to be amongst like minded individuals, something which probably does not happen very often at school.

Forget our fascination with reality television; The National Spelling Bee is the real deal. These children are under the spotlight facing leers from The Pronouncer, a judging panel and desperate gazes from their parents when a single letter can end it all, there are no second chances here.

Given the subject matter, Spellbound is a surprisingly riveting experience that will have you on the edge of the seat as many times as any good thriller. It is a totally absorbing and very rewarding experience.

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originally posted: 12/01/04 07:20:28
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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.

User Comments

2/16/16 Mike Hunt same as P. Ness 1 stars
3/25/15 P. Ness sucks ass 1 stars
7/26/12 Em Like watching paint dry. But worse. 1 stars
11/05/09 James Yours is the only negative review on rottentomatoes. You're obviously not very bright. 5 stars
7/04/09 Phil I thought it was ironic that you mispelled "rolled." 3 stars
1/12/09 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 5 stars
3/29/08 Rachel I thought it would be so boring, but I was SO wrong!!! 5 stars
12/05/06 Kate The single most overrated movie I've ever seen. Insipid and incompetent 2 stars
11/16/06 David An edge-of-the-seat thriller! You'll be sweating it out with the spellers. 5 stars
11/08/06 Carol Baker not a top documentary and I've been watching plenty of them. 3 stars
10/31/06 Gladys This movie was awesome...I really enjoyed watching it. 5 stars
10/27/06 arlinda never in a million years did i think i would enjoy a movie about a spelling bee this much 5 stars
10/26/06 farse omar i love this movie. Blitz was right when he said at least making it to the competition is gd 5 stars
10/26/06 gerardo c really interesting and also amaizing, just cant believe how such young kids can have those 5 stars
5/28/06 millersxing doesn't leave much of an impression 3 stars
9/16/05 Monday Morning Totally real and absolutely wonderful. 5 stars
4/03/05 Charlene Javier B-R-I-L-L-I-A-N-T 5 stars
3/31/05 hannaho An entertaining look at this unique competition. 4 stars
1/22/05 Tjalda L. Schiel Real life and it's entertaining to boot. 5 stars
11/09/04 Taylor Fladgate A hidden jewel. A suspensful documentary...who would have thought? 5 stars
8/27/04 Bruce Smith Tedium. 30 minutes was more than enough for me. A school project, perhaps? 2 stars
7/28/04 Elizabeth Quite interesting, and Harry Altman was particularly memorable. 3 stars
3/26/04 bikehorn Who thought of this? Great movie! Kind of odd and tense at times! 5 stars
2/25/04 tony duke this movie sucked horribly and the director should be shot in the head 1 stars
9/30/03 clarance the cobra Great fucking movie 5 stars
8/26/03 Caitlin Hilarious! But I feel bad saying that because I'm not sure if it's supposed to be! 5 stars
8/12/03 J Herman More entertaining and dramatic than a hundred explosion laden summer "action blockbusters. 5 stars
8/05/03 ttiinnaa god damn this was a good documentary!!! I was glued to it the whole way 5 stars
7/15/03 Alice Rothe The best film in a long time 5 stars
7/01/03 Kathy Ramsey Reminded me of the Michael Apted "Up" docs, but I loved it anyway. 5 stars
6/17/03 GD Excellent 5 stars
6/12/03 Bill Begert riveting! 5 stars
6/08/03 J Boring 1 stars
5/18/03 Ian Barnard Nuanced, funny, well made, moving, and full of interesting social commentary. 5 stars
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  30-Apr-2003 (G)
  DVD: 20-Jan-2004



Directed by
  Jeffrey Blitz

Written by

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

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