Spellbound


Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
Released: November 13, 2003
Grade: A

There’s something undeniably fascinating about America’s National Spelling Bee competition.  Over 9,000,000 kids compete in local and regional qualifying heats with just 249 making it through to the final in Washington D.C.  If you do the math, that means you’ve got about a 1 in 36,000 chance of even making it this far.  If you are one of the most gifted in the country (the competition is open to those in the 8th grade or below) the National championship offers that one final challenge.  Only one can be left standing.  All they ask for is the final word.

The competition first began in 1925 and the words have become increasingly more difficult.  If you consider yourself somewhat of a spelling guru, think again.  Some of the words which have decided recent competitions include “pococurante”, “prospicience”, “succedaneum”, “demarche”, “chiaroscurist” and “euonym”.  Those dedicated to the competition read the dictionary for hours on end each day trying to perfect their knowledge.  But as one entrant so accurate puts it “you could know every word in the dictionary but one, and get that one”.

Spellbound is a documentary made by Jeffrey Blitz which looks at the 1999 competition.  He follows eight entrants in particular and they all have varied backgrounds and techniques which have gotten them this far.  The first half of the film introduces us to the children and it’s surprisingly interesting.  I expected a hard expose of oppressive parents who push their children in pursuit of an unattainable dream.  Instead, Blitz focuses on the children’s unbelievable talent.

There’s something about the innocence and honesty of these kids that makes its all so compelling.  We see them interviewed and they talk about their methods, their confidence levels and what they hope to achieve from it all.  I related most to the contestant who seemed continually negative and despite making it to the final, did not want to even contemplate the idea of winning.

The final half of the movie sees them face off at the National Championships.  This is without doubt, the most suspenseful moment in a film released this year.  They stand alone on a stage, microphone pressed to their mouth, an audience agonisingly watching, the ESPN cameras broadcasting it nationwide, trying to spell a solitary word.  One mistake and the competition is over.  There is no second chance.

This whole sequence has been precisely edited by Jeffrey Blitz.  As the kids prepare to answer, we are shown flashbacks of previous interviews with the child and parents (to remind us of their thoughts and theories) and interviews with the kids after the competition (to help us understand the pressure of the situation and the logic behind their answers).  Just wait till the 249 finalists are narrowed down to the final handful.  No matter how close you get, there’s still only one winner and the tension is electric.

Aside from the obvious entertainment value, Spellbound asks questions which are as difficult to answer as some of the words themselves are to spell.  Should kids of this age group be subjected to such pressures?  Do the hours of continual study isolate them from their fellow classmates?  The filmmakers do not influence us with their opinions (just the way I like it) and the answers to these questions will differ for everyone.

Earlier this year, Spellbound picked up a worthy nomination for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards but lost out to the equally astounding Bowling For Columbine.  I adore quality documentaries and am thankful to have seen two fine examples in the last twelve months.  If you’re looking to see one of the best films of 2003, just remember S-P-E-L-L-B-O-U-N-D.