review by Elias
16 May 2003
favorite in the documentary feature category at this year's Oscars
(Like Bowling for Columbine
wouldn't win?), Spellbound
is an overwhelmingly refreshing, and extremely palpitating, look at
the 1999 competition that was the seventy-second annual Scripps
Howard National Spelling Bee. Way down the must-see rung from the
Superbowl, the World Series, or collegiate basketball's Final Four,
first-time feature producer-director-cinematographer Jeffrey Blitz
and his co-producer Sean Welch have packed nearly as much excitement
in what is not generally considered a stimulating spectator sport.
Lucky film festival audiences (South by Southwest, Woodstock,
Hawaii, Cleveland) caught on to the film's intoxicating joie-de-vivre
last year, lavishing well-deserved praise and prizes. Now the
rest of America can expect to be caught spellbound courtesy
of Toronto-based indie distributor Thinkfilm, Inc. Arranging words
in their correct order hasn't been this much fun since Dan Quayle's
potatoe blunder during his failed 1992 presidential bid provided
years of comic fodder.
than an episode of Survivor and without the commercial interruptions, this
ninety-seven-minute digital excursion into the corners of America
(first half) and the tension-filled finals in Washington, DC (the
rest), follows the paths of eight young teenagers as the advance
through their regional competitions, studiously preparing for
bragging rights in their neighborhood classrooms, local school
district, home county, geographic region, or some such territory, as
nine million pessimists, optimists, and realists are whittled down
to the chosen 249 national qualifiers.
enthralled with the "action" when he watched the 1997
finals, undoubtedly just as emotionally wringing as those captured
in his film. This isn't as outlandish as it may sound, considering
the ESPN commentators (that sports network broadcasts the final
rounds live) give running odds on the youngsters as round after
round thin the rolls, cue the occasional tear, and break a heart or
two, no matter how poised these adolescents appear to be.
The filmmaker and
his small crew apparently researched their potential subjects in
tracking the front-runners, hoping that one of the kids they were
documenting for back story would be crowned champion. I heard that
more than the eight featured children and their families were taped,
but that director Blitz and editor Yana Gorskaya recut some in and
out of the film prior to its commercial release. I suspect some of
those contestants left on the cutting room floor will be highlighted
somewhere on the home-video DVD version.
The film's stars
cover an economic, social, and ethnic gamut. Their personalities are
just as diverse. Starting on the dusty, desolate streets of
Perryton, Texas, Angela Arenivar, daughter of a Mexican ranch hand
who doesn't speak English, nonetheless receives her parents' devoted
pride and attention (all the challengers share strong family, and
teacher, commitments). Ubaldo and Concepcion's only wish for their
children—that they receive a better education in the United
States—appears to have come true. In Tampa, Florida, ninth grader
Nupur Lala practices violin and remembers her previous year's
elimination, hilariously recreated by several of her classmates.
Meanwhile in Rolla, Missouri, tall, lanky, and wearing deep, intense
eyes, Ted Brigham helps his parents raise peacocks. He likes guns,
explosives, and bows & arrows. "I'm really good at
math," he adds. Up in New Haven, Connecticut, Emily Stagg, a
tenth grader with Harry Potter eyeglasses (a common style here),
fiercely wants to excel in everything. Ashley White, a black
youngster living in the nation's capital, has a dutiful mother who
smokes and a father who seems to be out of the picture (two uncles
are incarcerated). But there is a loving extended family that
supports this honor student, who learns words using scrabble tiles
with her teacher. On the other side of the country and economic
scale is twelve-year-old Neil Kadakia, a San Clemente boy living
with his efficiency-expert parents and a family of over-achievers.
Dad built the coastal-view house they live in. Spring back across
the country to Ambler, Pennsylvania, and there is April DeGideo, her
"Bee Happy" parents, a funny little dog, and a horribly
abused dictionary. "Smithsonian material" her mom jokes.
This girl devours medical dictionaries in a single reading. Rounding
out the group is the loquacious, wise-cracking Harry Altman from
Glen Rock, New Jersey. He probably puts more words on the soundtrack
than the other seven boys and girls combined. He's quite an
effective flavor to the kids, their families, and their mentors,
showcasing the group determination that pervades all their lives.
For tension, he uses the ticking of a clock and a nervous
harmonica/xylophone score (by Daniel Hulsizer) to build the anxious
moments when national pronouncer Dr. Alex J. Cameron (who died this
past February after having enunciated more than 18,000 words) is
tossing the likes of "cephalalagia", "mattock",
"corollary", "hellebore", "banns", and
even "yenta" at the contestants.
Blitz adds a few
pieces of fluffy filler, including a brief interview with Frank
Neuhauser, the original 1925 winner, and Paige Kimble, the 1981
winner and current director of the National Spelling Bee.
It's hard to
believe that a film about spelling can be such grand entertainment. S-P-E-L-L-B-O-U-N-D
is spellbinding. Yeah, there's no way I would ever want to play
scrabble with these kids!
G - General Audiences.
All ages admitted.