Spellbound (2003)

Reviewed By Mark Rodger-Snelson
Posted 12/01/04 07:20:28

"A totally absorbing and very rewarding experience."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

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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