Of the nine million kids who took part in the 75th (1999) National Spelling Bee in the US, this documentary examines the motivation, preparation, attitudes and family environment of eight contestants, all about 13. The competition, from local schools through various elimination rounds, ends up in Washington with just 249 finalists; but there is ultimately only one winner, who takes home $10,000 and a lifetime of pride.
Review by Louise Keller:
Inspiring, enthralling and spectacularly entertaining, Spellbound is a poignant, funny, award-winning documentary about bright kids striving for their dreams. As nail-bitingly tense as any thriller and as funny as any screwball comedy, this wonderful film from first time director Jeffrey Blitz whose fascination with speech and storytelling originated from his own childhood stuttering problem, will have you mesmerized from A to Z. We just get sucked in.
First of all, we get to meet a whole bunch of youngsters in their home environment as they prepare for and then participate in the National Spelling Bee in Washington. We meet their parents, siblings, teachers and hear in their own words why and how they became involved. Thereís Angela from Texas, whose non English-speaking immigrant Mexican father looks after cattle; Nupur from
Floria, whose Indian parents have given her a strong work ethic; Ted from Missouri, whose physicality would suggest basketball, not spelling; Emily from Connecticut who takes pride in achieving Ė be it at spelling, horse-riding or singing; Ashley a black American girl from Washington is motivated by prayers while spelling gives her life a focus; Neil is an East Indian from California studies between 7,000 Ė 8,000 words each day in a unique system created by his father; Harry from New Jersey is a real character who talks non-stop, often like a musical robot and pulls the most extraordinary faces.
We warm to each of these youngsters, as we meet them and their families, warts and all. Thereís the eye-rolling young brother, the fanatic father, the hard-working mother, the crocheting ranch ownerís wife who prompts her husband, the father who built everything in their home, the scene stealing dog that licks legs. And then when we go to Washington, there are 249 spellers in the finals, each sitting side by side with numbers hanging around their necks, waiting to be called for their moment of truth. Our hearts are in our mouths as our favourites are called to the microphone to be given an astonishingly difficult word to spell. Through the highs and lows, we relive the relief, the ecstasy, the disappointments as some remain in competition, while others are ushered into the comfort room when the bell is rung. Then, on the final day, when the 46 remaining spellers are being televised for the grand finale, the numbers dwindle down to eight. We watch the parents as their child is put to the test Ė some pray, some look as though they are going to burst, and none help their body language.
Simple but effective music enhances the tension and impressive editing squeezes the maximum emotional response as the final competitor wins by spelling the noun logorrhoea. If, like me, you get swept away by emotions, the tears will be running down your cheeks by now. Spellbound is an honest and revealing look at human nature, and how the inspiration of this national spelling contest can introduce us to a whole dictionary full of emotions.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
We film critics are handed production notes about the films we preview, and I know that some purists never look at them, fearing the notes will somehow seduce them into a more favourable view of the film, or perhaps put the story across as the makers want it, not how the critic sees it. I donít have such fears and often fin the notes informative and a source of deeper insight. My job is not just to criticise, but to open a window to the film for my readers Ė if that doesnít sound too wanky. So it is with interest that while skimming through the notes for Spellbound I noted with interest a paragraph about the filmmakers being asked if the National Spelling Bee, which is the setting for this film, was really a waste of time these days. I wondered who those imbeciles are; or maybe they hadnít seen the film.
Spellbound isnít ABOUT the Bee. Itís about the human condition, examined through this yearly word-honouring event. Itís not about the importance of spelling, either. Itís about how people Ė in the case whole families and their pets Ė respond to challenge, how the very American love of competition is manifested in migrants, how what sense of competition can do positively and negatively, and probably a few other things as well. The heart of the film is about young people pursuing a goal, learning to do something thatís hard and incidentally how their families react. Itís a social doco, a series of human interest stories linked by a common event which unites the subjects but leaves them as unique individuals even more sharply defined at the end than when we meet them at the beginning.
The drama is subtle, the pain is real and the humour is ripping. And the only thing I really wanted to know was why this event has 249 finalists and the damn production notes donít say!
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CAST: Documentary with Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg, Ashley White
PRODUCER: Jeffrey Blitz, Sean Welch
DIRECTOR: Jeffrey Blitz
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jeffrey Blitz
EDITOR: Yana Gorskaya
MUSIC: Daniel Hulsizer
PRODUCTION DESIGN: n/a
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 13, 2003