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
If you need proof that fact is indeed more compelling than fiction, look no further than `Spellbound,' a fascinating and aptly named documentary centered on that great American competition for brainiacs known as the National Spelling Bee.
In designing his film, director Jeffrey Blitz has chosen to focus on eight competitors from widely varying racial, geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds, interviewing them and their families before, during and after the competition. In the first half of the film he introduces us to each of the contestants, giving us behind-the-scenes glimpses into their home lives, their study techniques, their aspirations and their attitudes towards competition and the value of dedication and hard work. The common denominators these eight individuals all share are intelligence, drive, determination and a supportive family structure. Even though the pressure of the experience seems almost too much for any youngster to bear, all of these participants come across as levelheaded, sensible individuals who manage to keep it all in a healthy perspective. The parents, too, seem reasonable in their expectations, encouraging their children without placing undue pressure on them and beaming with justifiable pride at their amazing progeny. Yet, for all their seeming `nerdness' and gift for articulation, Blitz makes it clear that these kids are really just kids (albeit highly gifted ones) after all.
In the second half of the film, we move to the competition itself, watching as all except one of the people we have come to know over the course of the film eventually become eliminated (Blitz had the grand good fortune of choosing the eventual winner as one of his subjects). The scenes at the competition itself provide more edge-of-the-seat suspense than a truckload of fictional Hollywood thrillers. You'll find your mind and heart racing as each child endeavors to spell out the arcane, tongue-tying words chosen by the officials for the competition. Throughout the proceedings, the audience is on as much of an emotional roller coaster as the participants and their families. As a filmmaker, Blitz knows that the human face is really a map revealing what is taking place inside our hearts and minds and this he captures with uncanny precision as the children sweat, tear up, furrow their brows and even in some cases act out their thought processes in humorously absurd muggery while formulating their answers.
`Spellbound' succeeds in its twofold purpose: to honor that commitment to competition that has defined what it means to be an American and to demonstrate that achieving in a competitive field using one's mind can be just as exciting and rewarding as achieving one's greatness on a court, field or gridiron. That's a message all too rarely conveyed by American culture.
Watching this film, you will indeed be spellbound.
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