review by Elias Savada, 16 May 2003

An underdog 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.

More engrossing 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.

Blitz was 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 exuberant character.

Blitz gives 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!

Directed by:
Jeff Blitz

Harry Altman
Angela Arenivar
Ted Brigham
April DeGideo
Neil Kadakia
Nupur Lala
Emily Stagg
Ashley White

G - General Audiences.
All ages admitted.







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