Real-world suspense doesn’t get much better than it does in Spellbound, in the chasm of silence between the last letters uttered by a teen-age speller and their pained facial anticipation of the dinged bell signifying their error.
A documentary about the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, Spellbound is scarily involving during these moments of competition and in its introduction of the children at its core.
While it’s not an epic a la Hoop Dreams or Bowling for Columbine, its fluffy subject matter allows it to be able to squeeze in endearingly quirky moments that, were they not based on truth, could just as easily be found in a Christopher Guest mockumentary.
Spellbound tries a little too hard to reach at the grand Americana theme in its final stretches, but it’s adept at weaving together the common thread of the children even as they seem to be vastly different. As one child’s parent says, “When you fight in a war, everybody has the same goal.”
Angela is a daughter of Spanish-speaking immigrants in a small Texas town. Previously eliminated in the third round of the 1998 bee, Nupur is looking to make a return trip from Tampa to Washington, D.C. Ted had never heard of the bee until 1999 and is new to his small Missouri town. Emily of Connecticut focuses on spelling because there are other girls in her school better at horse riding and singing than she is.
Ashley, already in D.C., is a working-class black girl. Neil’s parents have hired the best spelling teachers in California in a scarily meticulous preparation for him to be the best. April from Pennsylvania has ravaged her dictionary as an escape method from her often-overbearing parents.
And then there’s Harry, a jaw-droppingly talkative New Jersey kid who can most kindly be described as hyperactive.
Harry comes as close to “weird” as any of these kids, and director Jeffrey Blitz and producer Sean Welch ride the line awfully close to mockery with him. But they get honest laughs out of the quirks of the fringe characters, such as the Hooters owner so taken with Nupur’s success that he doesn’t know he’s misspelled “congratulations” or April’s parents, whom she likens to Archie and Edith Bunker “because Archie was always mad at Edith for being dumb.”
Furthermore, Blitz and Welch capture the fact these children are not in competition with one another, but with Webster’s dictionary and the fickle hand of fate. While some of them respond emotionally to being ousted from competition, many of them acknowledge it’s mostly luck.
Certainly, the spelling world is populated with control-freak parents and scarred children. But Spellbound thankfully does not go that obvious route, making even the moms and dads who seem over-the-top in their methods understandably human about it.
Neil’s parents, who have hired separate coaches to brush him up on German, Spanish and French derivatives, see the expense of his expertise as an extension of their American dream of perseverance and hard work. It is his story and Angela’s that come closest to personifying this theme.
Combining the mystique of spelling with the care and concern that all of these parents have for their children, Spellbound is a fine documentary, illuminating a world very few of us thought we could understand.