Spellbound

An enthralling, suspenseful documentary about spelling bees... yes, spelling bees: The spectacle of kids conquering freaky, tongue-twisting words really is thrilling. First-time feature filmmakers Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch single out eight children from wildly different backgrounds and trace the paths that lead them to the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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An enthralling, suspenseful documentary about spelling bees... yes, spelling bees: The spectacle of kids conquering freaky, tongue-twisting words really is thrilling. First-time feature filmmakers Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch single out eight children from wildly different backgrounds and trace the paths that lead them to the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, a two day event held annually in Washington, D.C. Eligibility ends at the eighth grade and students can't be older than 16, but most appear to be between 10 and 12. In any given year, nine million students participate in local and regional spelling bees; only 249 qualify to go to the Nationals and test their skills against words like "cephalgia," "heuristic," "cabotinage" and "opsimath." Neil, from San Clemente, Calif., is the privileged child of ambitious Indian immigrants; they've hired spelling coaches and language tutors, bought spelling-drill software, systematically studied words that tripped up skilled spellers in previous bees and even arranged a prayer marathon in India to help their son succeed. Perryton, Tex., native Angela, by contrast, is a self-taught speller who qualifies in her regional bee without benefit of coaches, study guides or even a computer; her Mexican immigrant parents speak almost no English. Optimistic Ashley practices with scrabble tiles in the apartment she shares with her single mother in a Washington, D.C., housing project. Ted, an awkward loner from rural Rolla, Mo., doesn't even think he's especially good at spelling; he prefers math. Nupur, from Tampa, Fla., is calm and self-possessed; chatty, high-strung Harry, from Glen Rock, N.J., tells goofy jokes and screws up his face like a cartoon gargoyle when he's sounding out a word. Neither Emily, from New Haven, Conn., nor April, from Ambler, Pa., thinks she can win. But Emily is philosophical — the best thing about losing, she confides, would be tossing her word lists forever — while April, whose parents are enamored of all things cheerily bee-oriented ("Welcome to Our Hive," reads their front-door plaque), is wracked with self-doubt. The filmmakers branch out to include interviews with previous winners, including Frank Neuhauser, who won the very first Scripps Howard competition in 1925. But the kids are the main event, and their stories are proof that real life rushes in where fiction fears to tread. What screenwriter would dare invent a spelling bee champ from a non-English speaking family, have the child of Indian immigrants stumble on "darjeeling" or the winner triumph on "logorrhea?"

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: G
  • Review: An enthralling, suspenseful documentary about spelling bees... yes, spelling bees: The spectacle of kids conquering freaky, tongue-twisting words really is thrilling. First-time feature filmmakers Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch single out eight children from wi… (more)

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