November 4, 2003 -- “Spellbound” (not to be confused with the old Hitchcock movie) is a gripping documentary which follows eight teenagers in their quest to become the spelling champion of the United States. You wouldn't think a national spelling bee would have any drama, particularly if you haven't seen one, but the film is loaded with drama. It is also loaded with comedy. This is one of the funniest film's I've seen in a long time.
What this film does, better than any other documentary I've ever seen, is to capture people on camera who seem to be totally unguarded and at ease expressing themselves. Most people tend to tense up when they know that millions of people will be watching and listening to them. The people in this film seem pretty relaxed and don't seem to care how people will judge them. The kid who really steals the show is Harry Altman, a one-of-a-kind flaky guitar-playing kid who can out-spell just about anybody. Harry is utterly irrepressible. He is seemingly unconcerned about what people think of him and he is simply a joy to watch. He is a genuinely funny person as well as being exceptionally bright.
Harry and some of the other kids, like Neil Kadakia, Emily Stagg and Nupur Lala have some advantages that the more disadvantaged kids don't have. They come from wealthier families, they have personal computers to help them study spelling, and they attend upscale, well-funded schools. Kadakia even has several spelling tutors hired by his father to help him prepare for the competition. His father even hires people in India to pray for his son's success. Several of the finalists in the national competition are from Indian families, who prize education highly. Kadakia, who pushes and coaches his son relentlessly as he practices thousands of words a day, believes he is preparing his son to be a success in life by establishing a good work ethic. In America, he believes, anyone can succeed if he works hard.
April DeGideo's father is not so pushy, and he knows from his years of work in an asbestos plant, that hard work can kill you as fast as it can make you a success. He is very proud of his daughter's success in the national spelling bee, but more than that, he wants her to be happy. April, like many of the other spellers is a workaholic when it comes to preparing for the spelling bee. She practices spelling words every spare moment she has. Like April's parents, Nupur Lala's parents don't push her, either, but she pushes herself relentlessly to succeed, studying long, hard hours.
The other kids are remarkable in that they have overcome very long odds just to get to the national spelling bee. They come from poorer families and from school systems which have few resources to help them. Ted Brigham is a genius stuck in the hinterlands of Texas, in a school where he is a virtual outsider. The school he attends lavishes support on athletes, but academic excellence goes unrecognized. Brigham is an outsider. Even his parents don't seem to understand his remarkable abilities. Angela Arenivar comes from a low income home where her parents speak mostly Spanish. She also attends a school system which offers few advantages (except for some very dedicated teachers). Angela, like Ted, has to devise her own way to study for the spelling bee. Ashley White, raised by a single mother, has none of the advantages of her opponents from richer families and better school systems. Ashley has a lot of confidence in herself and she believes she will make a better life for herself. The spelling bee is just a first step in a longer journey.
One of the striking things about this film is how it depicts all the hard work these kids put into this spelling bee. One image that is quite telling is a huge Webster's unabridged dictionary that has been thumbed to death. This dictionary has been all but destroyed from overuse by one of the spelling bee contestants. The documentary goes on to interview some of the people who run the national spelling bee. Some past winners of the spelling bee (including the 1925 winner) are also interviewed. This is a very entertaining and well-made documentary in which everyone speaks for himself. This is the best 2002 documentary I have seen, even better than “Winged Migration” and “Bowling for Columbine” (which won the Academy Award®). “Spellbound” was also nominated for a best documentary Oscar®. Like those two other films, “Spellbound” has a political point to make, but it is a lot more subtle in doing so than its Oscar competitors. This film rates a B+.
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