Directed by Jeffrey Blitz. USA. 2002.

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In the U.S., thousands of students participate each year in spelling competitions that begin on a school, local, and regional level and end with the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee finals in Washington, DC, an American institution since 1925. The Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound by Jeffrey Blitz follows eight children, ages 12 to 14, from their preparation for the 1999 competitions through to the finals. The director traveled all over the country to select students from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds and chose those he thought had the best chance of success. Though we do not really know what drives these children to endure long hours of study to compete in the Spelling Bee, it is apparent that they are single-minded in their purpose, perhaps eager to overcome the limitations of their economic status or ethnic background or simply to validate the premise of the "American dream," that one can lift themself up through hard work. 

One of the contestants is Angela from Perryton, Texas, the child of Mexican immigrants whose parents don't speak English. Her brother tells us that his dreams will be answered if Angela wins the National and her mother says that it was the happiest day of her life when her daughter won the Regionals. Another contestant is Ashley, an inner city black girl from Washington, DC. who does not have the resources and study aids that other contestants do but has a strong motivation to succeed. Blitz depicts the family life of the children and observes how each of them goes about their preparation. Most are normal adolescents but some say they feel like outcasts because they are so intellectually advanced. To them, the Bee is a place where they can come together with others like themselves and experience a mutual pride in intellectual achievement. 

Some parents are involved to an extraordinary degree. One example is the father of Neil, an Indo-American boy from San Clemente, California who goes to the extraordinary measure of paying thousands of people in his home country of India to chant and pray for his son's victory. He spends hours each day working with Neil and has him privately tutored by French, Spanish and German instructors. Remarkably, the father pledges $5000 to feed hungry Indians if his son wins. The first hour introduces the children and the last thirty minutes shows us the actual competition. As we watch the drama unfold, the children must spell words like "cephalalagia", "mattock", "corollary", "hellebore", and "banns" in order to survive. Blitz masterfully builds the tension by cutting away from the child spelling a word to an earlier interview that illuminates an aspect of their personality. The result is that our attachment to the children is intensified as the film progresses. By the end of the film we each have our favorites, though we know that with only one winner out of 249 children, heartbreak likely awaits. 

Spellbound explores the fabric of American society in a way that is deeply rewarding. Despite the disparate social and economic backgrounds of the film's principals, there is unity among them, as they pursue what is often described as the "American dream." For each family, the Spelling championship symbolizes something much larger than a mere contest over words, becoming, in fact, a metaphor for hope. The egalitarian nature of the competition supports the American ideal that one can transcend one's social strata through hard work, and in this sense, the contest is quintessentially American. It is this, perhaps, that accounts for the passionate, and even desperate urgency with which the families pursue the title. Spellbound is a thoughtful inquiry into the enduring myths of our culture, and speaks to the insistent hope for a better life that remains at the heart of the American experience.

Howard Schumann
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