The documentary "Spellbound" is an unexpected pleasure, following eight youngsters from all corners of America to their dramatic showdown in the National Spelling Bee.
By JOSHUA TANZER
Somebody must surely have warned Jeffrey Blitz that his documentary about spelling bees was doomed to unreleased obscurity as one of the nerdiest films ever. And they would have been right at least about the nerdy part.
Against all odds, "Spellbound" did get released, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable celebration of an all-American phenomenon. Namely, the smart kid. Sometimes mocked by their schoolmates, often the pride of their families, these pre-teens from all over the country train as intensively as athletes athletes with dictionaries and flash cards.
|Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz.|
Featuring: Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg, Ashley White..
Related links: Official site
The film peeks into the lives of eight of these kids as they prepare for the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Some are youngsters from astonishingly poor families who have somehow seized on spelling as something they can be the best at like tall, gangly Ted Brigham of small-town Missouri and Angela Arenivar, daughter of immigrant farm workers in Texas. Some are quite well-to-do like Emily Stagg of Connecticut, who mixes dictionary reading with horse-riding lessons, and Neil Kadakia, son of Indian immigrants in California whose father has bought enough computerized training equipment to turn him into a formidable spelling machine. Some are already quite eccentric at age 12, but all are lovable.
Having scouted the top prospects, Blitz winds up with a range of competitors from early-exiters to finalists, and the drama of the national championship in Washington, D.C., is nail-biting beyond any of your expectations. As the spelling words get tougher, some of the kids amaze us, others seem to fall victim to unfair questions, or just simple bad luck. (In one of the funniest moments, the Indian spelling juggernaut Neil falters on the word Darjeeling.) That's the nature of the beast.|
Most priceless are the kids' reactions in front of the microphone when they finish their answers and either survive or get dinged out of the running. For all the moments of sudden joy, it's a heartless competition in which everyone but one is a loser. The final comes down to one kid we've met and another who was supposed to be in the film but pulled out. We definitely have a favorite and the suspense in the final moments might rival a Hollywood action movie.
What's magical about "Spellbound" is that it catches these kids at their last moment of innocence before high school. What we see are real, uncensored personalities. These kids are bright beyond their years but still have a lot of kid in them. They aren't afraid to share their enthusiasm, their sense of fun, their kooky home life, their earnest dreams. The whole film is an unexpected pleasure, an affectionate portrait of America's brightest sons and daughters.
|DECEMBER 31, 2003|
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Reader comments on Spellbound:
Wheetle from Patrick Irvine, Nov 24, 2004
Awesome from Greggory Jones, Nov 3, 2005
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