This documentary follows 8 teens and pre-teens as they work their way toward the finals of the Scripps Howard national spelling bee championship in Washington D.C. All work quite hard and practice daily, first having to win their regional championship before they can move on. Interviews include the parents and teachers who are working with them. The competitors not only work hard to get to the finals but face tremendous pressure as the original group of over 250 competitors is whittled down and the words they must spell get ever more difficult. Written by
A surprisingly suspenseful and compelling documentary
When one says that they are excited to see a documentary on the 8th graders' National Spelling Bee, that person is met with a look and an `Oooookaaaay .' I was on the receiving end of these looks for the last two years when I wanted to see `Spellbound', Jeffrey Blitz's 2002 documentary about the `spelling elite'. I finally got my wish recently and was thrilled that it met (and exceeded) my high expectations for the film.
For `Spellbound', Blitz traveled around the United States and chose eight competitors, aged 11-14, to profile before the eventual climax of the actual spelling bee. We see the home lives of the eight students, who range from poverty to upper middle class affluence, single parent families, and two-parent homes. There are even Archie and Edith Bunker reincarnated as the parents of one girl, and another girl whose parents, though having lived in the United States for over twenty years, don't speak English. Though these students come from fairly different backgrounds, they seem to be treated slightly different because of their intelligence, and therefore descend upon Washington D.C. for the Spelling Bee with a commonality.
`Spellbound' is Jeffrey Blitz's first film and he already exhibits a masterful eye for the documentary genre. Though the profiles are fairly routine, the second half of the film, the Spelling Bee itself, is so compelling that I felt the same effect as your average suspense film. The viewer is naturally led to pick a `favorite', though not guided to any specific child. My `favorite' was knocked out fairly early and I truly felt something. There is nothing fancy about the camera work, there are no stark white backgrounds or a Phillip Glass score, or a reactionary topic. What I felt while watching this film was that I was sitting among the audience and letting the camera be my guide one of the most important elements of a good documentary film.
Whether you think the subject matter isn't worthy of an hour and a half treatment, or didn't notice it in the year of `Bowling for Columbine' (which beat `Spellbound' to win the Best Documentary Oscar for 2003) I would recommend picking up this film. It's heart breaking at times, but mostly, inspirational because some of these kids have more maturity in one arm than a lot of adults I know, and their grace under pressure is both awe-inspiring and something to aspire to.
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