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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.
In one sense, the U.S. National Spelling Bee is a strange thing, a
freakish competition for freaks to take part in, and designed to make
them only more freakish. You don't have to understand the words to win,
you merely have to spell them, and the winner would seem to have proved
little else than their willingness to work hard for no social benefit,
and their ability to withstand extreme pressure. Make no mistake, the
kids featured in this documentary are bright and talented, but one
can't help but wonder whether such ruthless competition, or the
attitude that they are in some sense a "gifted" elite, is really good
for society or for the individuals themselves.
But it's not the competition that makes 'Spellbound', a documentary about 1999's contest, so gripping (we follow eight of the 249 finalists, but the film is sympathetic to them all, and does not encourage us to set one against the rest). Rather, this comes from the way the 'Spellbound' reminds us what a diverse country America is: ethnically, socially, physically. These kids come from all over, and while on one hand we see a very unusual slice of American life in this film, it's nonetheless a surprisingly broad one. Some of the contrasts are obvious: a family of Indian descent say that in America, if you work hard, you will succeed; but we also meet a family of Mexican descent (who consider that they have worked hard and succeeded, but who have little compared with the Indians), and a black family in a grim district of Washington (arguably failing to thrive after several hundred years). Yet in spite of their differences, their children are all (give or take the final few words) as good as each other (at least when it comes to spelling). Today, social mobility in America is lower than in Europe; but the old American dream, it seems, lives on in the spelling bee. And although the extreme preparation of most competitors appears to place a ludicrously inflated value on the work ethic, and though some (though not all) of the parents are frighteningly pushy, there's also something quite sweet, in this age of guns and violence, in such a fierce competition fought only with words.
'Spellbound' is filmed without tricks, or any special artiness, but nonetheless offers an unexpected insight into contemporary American society. But please let us not copy them and bring the bee back here!
NOTE TO SELF: No typos allowed in this review!
I was an excellent speller in school. I thought I was still pretty good now...until the pre-teen dynamos in 'Spellbound' left me in the dust. As 'Bowling For Columbine's chief competition for the 2002 Best Documentary Oscar, this modest gem about 8 contenders for the '99 National Spelling Bee is thrilling. Read that sentence again. A documentary about spelling is thrilling. Wow! How? Is it gripping to see a kid standing in front of a microphone, desperately trying to figure out how to spell words that most of us can't even pronounce? You bet it is. Who needs guns and explosions? THIS is tension.
When one of the girls crumbles and misspells a word, my heart sank. Really, how can you not root for all of these kids? Each entrant in the competition is a super-smart youngster, and it's not cheesy to say they're all winners for having gotten to the National Bee in the first place. Director Jeffrey Blitz can't focus on all of the spellers, so he chooses to highlight 5 girls and 3 boys. We see them at home as they & their families give us the low-down on what makes these brainiacs tick. Then it's off to the Bee, where it's high drama as errors are made and the field is whittled down, one by one.
I was cheering for all of Blitz's star spellers, but Harry Altman was my favourite. He's a hyperactive weirdo and I liked him immediately. Harry is the stand-out oddball in a group of diligent, nerdy types who share the stage. As engaging as he is, it's wonderful that this contest allows for quiet, shy, so-called geeks to be stars. This is the Super Bowl for scholars and it showcases kids from all backgrounds. Plus, there are about as many girls as there are boys. Truly, if you're a great speller, that's good enough.
'Spellbound' is the rare documentary that's more entertaining than it is informative. The kids reveal a great deal about themselves in the interviews, but the film is always building to the climactic moment when one of the last two children makes a mistake and the other wins the crown. You might be surprised by the result, although you shouldn't be. It's almost a 'Hoosiers' moment when the winning speller clinches the title. Every single kid in this movie is a better speller than anybody I know. If they want a job, I could use a proof-reader...even if that proof-reader is a lot smarter than me.
"Spellbound" is one of those documentaries that isn't soaked with politics
or social dilemmas, but it is touches on them indirectly. It's the story of
8 kids from all over the United States, their study habits, lives,
relationships with parents and personal beliefs, views and opinions. And how
they make it to the National Spelling Bee Contest.
These stories are all incredibly touching - my favorite is about one of the girls' grandfathers who illegally crossed the border into the U.S., got held at a detention center, then, finally accepted into the US, worked really hard and finally now, in his old age is able to say that he is happy. That he saw his kids get great education and good opportunities; essentially that all his hard work didn't go to waste.
The film is also tense - it communicates the tension inherent in any contest quite effectively here. By acquainting the viewer with the children before the contest an empathy is established and you find yourself rooting for them. You may not even realize it until, towards the end of the film, the filmmakers throw in a brief interview with a young, Jesus-freak kid and I didn't care which one of the eight kids featured in the documentary won as long as he didn't. I got what some would call "passionate" about the outcome of the contest.
Needless to say, it's a great story. It explores the tensions of fitting in at school, parental pressure, competitiveness and hobby/interest becoming an obsession. Some have said that it is a film about America, but I wouldn't venture as far. The film says far too little about the origins and history behind the Spelling Bee contest to be about an "American phenomenon," much less about a "phenomenon" of any kind. It's a film about one Spelling Bee, but even more so about eight kids who compete in it. And their parents and siblings and teachers. It's easy as hell to get a rush of memories from childhood watching this film, and it's oftentimes easy to cringe at the intensity of the entire affair. But, all in all, "Spellbound" is a great documentary which doesn't belittle its subject, but gives it its fullest attention - the product is a tense, funny and dramatic film about kids bonding over a common obsession, while aggressively competing. Logorrhea.
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.
Spellbound is a surprisingly moving film, because it is not really
about spelling, but about hopes and dreams. There's a lot of love in
the film, and it's interesting how different families have different
approaches... all the way from hands-off parents to parents hiring
drill coaches. The film does a good job of showing the backgrounds of
the kids and presenting their personalities. I found myself trying to
spell right along with them (unsuccessfully).
Spelling bees promote the worst kind of rote learning, especially when the kids are faced with words they will never use in real life. That's thousands of hours either totally wasted or to be less critical, hours that could have been put to better use, for example, learning creative writing or public speaking. Even so, as one parent says, this is practice to form a habit of perseverance for the future.
The pacing and music were perfect, the way the challenge was presented was clear and straightforward. Excellent film.
Who should see this film:
-- Kids of all ages
-- Everyone else. It's not at all boring.
I'll give Spellbound a perfect 10 out of 10.
Jeffrey Blitz, the director of this documentary had the bright idea to show
us what goes behind the scenes in this competition that some of us only see
as a television news clip when it is shown as the last finalist spells the
hard word correctly every year in the spring, or inside a newspaper with the
picture of the winner.
I didn't get a chance to see it until recently because I thought it was not going to be any good. Since I was attending a screening with a handicapped relative, and all the other films were sold out, we decided to see this one thinking it was going to be empty. Well, as we arrived early, we had our choice seats and slowly, but surely, people started to come in, to the point that all seats were taken!
This was a delightful inside view of what these teen agers go through in preparing for the competition. The kids are so charming and so alive and so much into the spirit of the contest that the viewer has more sympathy for the parents that sit in the audience. They suffer the most because for the contestants, even though it is a prestigious game, they maintain their cool even in the roughest moments.
In a way it also points out to what degree some immigrant parents, especially the Indians that appear in the documentary are involved in their children's school achievements. Year after year the winner is the son or daughter of someone from either India, Pakistan, or another Eastern country that has settled here because of the opportunities these children will have in the United States.
This documentary should be required viewing in schools throughout the country. Both teachers and students should benefit by watching it.
"Spellbound" is the acclaimed documentary that follows four young contestants in the 72nd Annual National Spelling Bee. One might think a spelling bee wouldn't be an even interesting enough to warrant a documentary. But this is the grand championship of spelling bees, the equivalent of the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards or the Presidential Election. Out of nine million schoolkids, only 249 make it to the finals. The young contestants and their families struggle to make it to the top. It's an exciting and stressful experience for those involved. "Spellbound" covers what these people are going through. You will feel for the young contestants, and want them to win it all. It's thrilling to see these children tackle the most overwhelming words in the English language. One young standout is Harry, the eccentric young boy from New Jersey. He lightens up the doc, and steals the show! You won't understand the prestige and daunting psychology of spelling bees until you see "Spellbound."
Doesn't it matter what the words mean more than the letters in them? Wouldn't it do a precocious kid more good to pour over Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Hemingway or even Harry Potter than to turn the pages of a dictionary or be drilled by a parent on how to spell obscure words like "lycanthrope" and "cephalalgia" (or the supremely ironic last word in the final shown here, "logorrhea") which the parents themselves can't even pronounce? When little showoff Harry Altman stumbles and comically grimaces over the word "banns," it seems to me he might be doing better not in the contest, perhaps, but in life to read more books, so he'd become familiar with the custom of "posting the banns," which isn't so obscure as the film and Harry make out, if you've gathered a wide acquaintance with marital customs through reading.
But there is after all a higher significance in all this. America is a self-made country and English in some queer sense is a self-made language, and these general points play into the significance of this surprisingly moving and thought-provoking little film. It's not only the suspense and emotion Spellbound evokes or its fairly tight documentary organization but such more general themes as social mobility and the accessibility of certain sports that make this otherwise conventional movie rise above the ordinary and explain why it's worthy of theatrical distribution and not just a slot on PBS. What would this be like in Italian? That's a language, like some others, whose spellings are so phonetic that a contest like this wouldn't make much sense. But English spellings really don't make much sense. English poses unique problems. The Italian columnist Beppe Severgnini is wrong to have written that it's because we're terrible spellers that spelling bees excite us. An Italian just can't understand. If you say an Italian word, ninety-eight percent of the time (if you're Italian) you know how to spell it. In English, we've got all those tiny vowel differences and remnants of Germanic gutturals and all those endless words from Arabic and Persian and Greek and a hundred other languages that we've transliterated by a hundred different unrelated systems. Why should `Darjeeling,' which so ironically almost stumps the Indian-American Neil Kadakia, be spelled that way and not darjiling or dardjeeling, or who knows what? It's because English spelling had no strict rules till the late nineteenth century; English went through so many growing pains from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dryden to Jane Austen; because we still have no consistent phonetic system; and because our language has all those endless half-assimilated loan words from other cultures and tongues, that spelling in English is a nightmare and a kind of art, and a truly expert young speller is a real entity worth the chimerical task of seeking him or her out each year.
Spelling bees are a matter of rote knowledge, but success in them can sometimes involve some inspired guessing, and this is shown by the fine tuning contestants are allowed in the DC competition when they ask what language or culture the word comes from. Despite the strong element of memorization, the event attracts and finds ambitious, bright, even rather intellectual kids: lots of hard work maybe, but also some kind of raw brainy talent we don't by any means all have: inspiration and perspiration, the old combination.
The new immigrants in Spellbound are a major force. There are not one but two Indian-Americans in the eight the filmmaker has carefully singled out for special focus, and one of those wins. There's the Mexican girl whose father (so movingly) feels fulfilled, his whole life's journey made worthwhile, just because she has qualified; and he can't even speak English. And there's Ashley, the Black girl from the DC projects who didn't get a trophy or much recognition but dreams, nay prays, to be the winner. And even the boy from rural Tennessee who says there are hardly any other smart kids in his school qualifies as some kind of outsider who magically comes home, and gets put in his place in a complex way, like an Oklahoma valedictorian in the freshman class at Harvard, when he gets to compete in the national spelling bee. .Spellbound itself isn't a profound movie, but it has heart. Like the German WWII film Die Brucke (The Bridge) it shows a group of kids up close and personal and then follows them into battle where one by one they fall, till the last remains, and gets "logorrhea" right (I didn't -- I had to use Spell Check again even though I guessed it right the first time), and becomes champion. And in the emotion of trying so hard and then getting knocked out by one wrong letter, Spellbound illustrates sportsmanship and being all you can be and the joy of competiton and the agony of defeat. It's about poise and maturity and just being a kid. And it's a close, intense analysis of an event a phenomenon, really with more ramifications than we ever realized, till we see it. Spellbound is pretty universal in its appeal and by any accounts it's a wonderful little documentary.
...this film can be found listed under the definition of "winner."
Absolutely wonderful work from first-time director/cinematographer
Jeffrey Blitz, "Spellbound" is an engrossing documentary that
introduces and follows eight regional Spelling Bee winners to the 1999
national championship in Washington, D.C. Of course, it's about far
more than the rote spelling of arcane words; it's about setting goals
and pursuing them, following your dreams and your heart's desires, and
above all, the value of love and cooperation in achieving what you set
out to do. Beautifully structured and paced, the story of these eight
kids, all of them heartbreakingly appealing and buoyantly inspiring,
will keep you on the edge of your seat as if you were involved in the
lexicographical competition yourself. Perhaps I am biased, having had a
child involved in a local spelling bee (she lost, and of course I just
loved her all the more), but I rank this little sleeper right up there
with "Hoop Dreams" and "Crumb" as one of my all-time favorite
documentaries. If you don't fall in love with these kids (and their
families) and share their agonies and ecstasies all the way through the
triumph of the final winner, then I would have to say you have no heart
and no soul. The DVD includes three other contestants whose arcs had to
be cut from the film for time, but who are equally engaging, as well as
a "where are they now?" addendum and a DVD-ROM Hangman's spelling game.
Simply put, not to be missed by anyone interested in the positive aspects of humanity.
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