“Spellbound” follows eight kids of wildly disparate ethnic, class and regional backgrounds from their respective hometowns to Washington D.C. for the finals of the National Spelling Bee. Docu dispassionately examines this strange phenomenon of anachronistic Americana, created as a newspaper promotion in 1925, pursued obsessively by a bunch of children who pour thousands of hours of study into it, and covered as a sporting event by ESPN. Filmmakers heighten the tension by following the built-in drama of the bee through certain competitors whom the audience gets to know and to root for. Slick-looking pic should score well on the festival circuit (it won a jury prize at the South by Southwest fest) and prospects for TV, video and limited theatrical runs appear strong.
The kids’ backstories, amazing in themselves, often play like madly exaggerated incarnations of ethnic and regional stereotypes. From the Ozarks (Rollo, Mo.) comes Ted, whose teacher speaks of his “difference” (i.e. his intelligence) with the careful language usually reserved for disability, and concludes that it will be good for Ted to go to the finals and discover there are other kids “like him.”
In New Haven, Conn., Emily takes time out from her singing and equestrian lessons to discuss with her parents whether to take along her au pair or to keep the trip to Washington a purely family affair.
An old Texas couple heap faint praise on the non-English-speaking ranch hand whose D.C.-bound daughter, Angela, was born on their land (“He’s a reliable Mexican … they’re not all just bums and tramps, you know — there’s some reliable ones mixed in”).
And in California, a proud parent proposes a celebratory dinner for 5,000 inhabitants of his native India if his intensively coach-and-family-trained son, Neil, should win.
Yet film stresses that definitions of cultural identity are by no means clear cut. Although three of the bee participants featured are of Indian extraction, their families couldn’t be more different. One of the most amazing moments of the finals is afforded by Neil’s torturous attempt to spell “Darjeeling,” an Indian-derived word he ironically never seems to have encountered. Indeed, the ethnic mix of these quintessentially American kids is mirrored in the ethnic mix of the words they’re given to spell.
Documentarians Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch understand that the best form of “objectivity” lies in admitting subjectivity. Thus, snappy, expressive montages of “other” kids going down for the count alternate with long, drawn-out, excruciatingly suspenseful letter-by-letter at-bats by “our” kids. Without resorting to narrative voiceover or Chyroned-in name tags, docu never lets the audience get distracted from the saga of the spellers, their assorted parents, siblings and aspirations.
Technically, lensing and sound are almost too professional, belying the film’s authentically grassrooots production.