The Academy Award nominated documentary Spellbound accomplishes something remarkable: on a shoestring budget, it makes a film about a spelling bee more suspenseful than any of the big summer blockbusters. Not only more thrilling than films like The Italian Job, T3, or Pirates of the Caribbean, Spellbound has something they all lack: realism, psychological depth and bang-on social commentary.
Spellbound proceeds in much the same way as the classic mock-dock Best in Show, but treats its personalities with respect. One by one, audiences are introduced to eight of the 300-odd finalists for the prestigious Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. The 12 and 13-year-old competitors come from a wide variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds from across the United States; they are the film’s heart and soul. All are unique individuals with a myriad of interest besides spelling. The finalists are contrasted with one another as we learn about them, their families and their neighbourhoods.
The contestants include Emily, a wealthy and gregarious 12 year-old from a well-to-do Manhattan family who makes time for spelling bees between equestrian practice and acappella choir. She is contrasted with Angela, the winner of the Washington City Bee. A black girl from the Washington projects being raised by a single mother, she says her life has been “like a movie…a series of trials and tribulation, in which I always end up coming out stronger.” Angela, who calls herself “a praying machine,” focuses on spelling to give her life meaning and keep her out of trouble on the streets.
Most of the contestants train hard: up to nine hours a day, but probably none have a regimen as strict as Neil whose wealthy East-Indian father personally trains him several hours a day, gives him tutors in foreign languages (to learn all the French and Germanic roots to English words), and makes him meditate.
Ted, on the other hand, lives in a trailer in rural Missouri. Ostracized for his interests beyond trucks and basketball, his teachers hope the spelling bee will show him there is a world beyond his high school, which incidentally misspells “congratulations” to him on an outdoor billboard.
In the United States spellings bees are taken seriously. Typically American with their emphasis on competition, they have a history going back to the late eighteenth century. Literacy was seen as a means of social advancement in the “New World,” and the bees were meant to encourage education. Many of the competitors especially those who come from immigrant families tend to still view the bees in this manner. The Indian families in particular are amazed at the opportunities for upward mobility allowed in the U.S.
But with today’s electronic spellcheckers, it seems like spelling bees are anachronistic, and what are they really but a challenge in memorization? Contestants don’t necessarily learn the meaning of the words they are studying; which after all is the essence of language. Moreover, standardized spelling only came into existence in the uptight 18th century. Chaucer, Thomas Hobbes, and William Shakespeare didn’t find the OED necessary to be understood.
But of course these critiques of spelling bees don’t undermine the achievement of Spellbound, or even the commitment of the young adolescents who dedicate themselves to achieving the goal of winning. Although their parent’s offer encouragement (the pushiness of Neil’s father is an exception), all the contestants study for the competition as an intensely personal goal. This film takes a poignant look at class, immigration, and the disparate regions of America through the surprisingly thrilling lens of a national spelling bee.
The elimination-style final day of the national competition is one of the highest rated events on ESPN for a reason; it’s damn nerve-racking, especially in the case of Spellbound where you come to empathize with the participants. The film’s skillfully edited last half-hour will have you on the edge of your seat without any gimmicks. Check it out, and bee impressed!
Spellbound is playing at the Cinema du Parc from July 24 to August 14.