This oscar-nominated documentary follows eight teens and their families as they prepare for compete in the national spelling bee. Not to be confused with the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title about an amnesiac who holds the key to an unsolved murder, this Spellbound is an Oscar-nominated, 97-minute documentary about young people with exceptional memories who hold the key to questions such as “How do you spell ‘peptidoglycan’?” Every year, 9 million students participate in spelling bees—249 regional champs advance to the annual World Series of spelling in Washington, D.C. Only one wins. And all it takes to be eliminated is one misspoken letter. Talk about pressure. This film follows eight bright, driven, decent teens from diverse backgrounds as they (and their parents) compete for the grand prize in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Although it was edged out for Oscar, it won six top awards for documentary filmmaking in 2003.
Perseverance, discipline and a strong work ethic are virtues common to all eight spellers. They study hard, spending hours memorizing the dictionary, working with tutors and preparing for success. When we first meet Angela, a sweet girl raised in the inner city and forced to compete without the extra help lavished upon the wealthier Neil, she says with a smile, “My life is like a movie because I go through different trials and tribulations and then I finally overcome.” Neil’s immigrant father credits hard work as the key to achieving the American Dream, refusing to have an attitude of entitlement, “What is valuable in life that is easy to achieve?” Ted says, “I don’t think I’ll win, but I’ll try hard anyways. It will be fun either way, though.” While some competitors are a bit more passionate about getting the gold trophy than others, all have a healthy attitude toward the tournament as it relates to their self-worth. Without exception, the parents are loving and supportive without being obnoxious. When their kids are eliminated, moms and dads are ready with a hug and words of encouragement. Some parents want more for their children than they’ve experienced in life, and do what they can to help them excel. Even those adults who look at their own lives and careers as mundane or substandard have proven themselves successes by raising these fine children. None are bitter or poor sports. All have good heads on their shoulders, keeping competition in perspective and having fun along the way. One girl says after bowing out, “I already feel like a champion just getting here. I think that’s enough because a lot of people don’t even accomplish that.” That’s a typical reaction. And because the filmmakers obviously agree that they’re all winners, we get a sympathetic, victorious take on each child’s experience rather than some sensationalistic invasion into people’s pain or bitterness (in other words, Jerry Springer would have no use for these folks). Visits with past champions are sweet and insightful during a brief, historical retrospective.
Ashley talks of praying a lot and refers to herself as a “prayer warrior.” Neil’s family is Hindu, and we see the 12-year-old meditating before a homemade altar. We learn that his grandfather has paid people back in India to pray and chant around the clock for Neil while he’s in Washington. Late in the film, we meet 11-year-old George Thampy, a home-schooled born-again Christian introduced as a favorite to win the national competition. He signs an autograph, prefacing his signature with “trust in Jesus.” His father says, “This country needs godly values. We are in a bankrupt society in regard to principles and character.” Cut to his home church in Missouri where we hear the preacher talking about the value God places on a young man honoring his parents. George notes his three keys to success: “Trust and belief in Jesus, honoring your parents and hard work.”
A few exclamations of “oh my god.”
Ashley’s mother is shown smoking cigarettes. April’s father talks about his decades-long career as a bartender.
Our culture has become fascinated with unscripted, “reality TV.” But most of what airs on the networks is cynical and corrupt. The calculating, cutthroat, every-man-for-himself competitiveness of Survivor. How Joe Millionaire deceives women and watches their catty competition for a stud they only think is rich. It’s enough to make someone swear off the genre altogether. But let’s not forget that, before there was Temptation Island, there were documentary filmmakers, many of whom actually have an affection for the people they train their cameras on. For families sick and tired of scandalous reality shows that exploit immorality and social cruelty, and pander to the lowest common denominator, a documentary like Spellbound will be a breath of fresh air.
If the notion of watching a teenager sweat over the correct spelling of “banns” sounds about as exciting as watching an ice cube melt, don’t write it off too quickly. You’ll be missing out on a small treasure. Spellbound is a lot more engaging than a movie about dictionary memorization has any right to be, primarily because everyone onscreen is so easy to root for. We feel badly that any of these likable kids has to lose, yet find encouragement in the way these families handle defeat. There are lessons here for students and parents, whether a teen is driven to excel at spelling, sports or the arts. How can one invest so much in a pursuit without letting that goal become the sum of who they are? Excellent films such as Chariots of Fire and Searching for Bobby Fischer tell true stories one way. Spellbound does it in another. Unscripted. Raw. Dramatic. A good-hearted nail-biter worth renting.