spellbound (2003)


director: jeff blitz

Eight kids from all over the United States end up competing in the Scripps Howard national spelling bee in Washington, D.C., a competition that’s been described as the geek Olympics, but which feels more like a war film where we watch a platoon we’ve gotten to know get picked off one by one in some hostile jungle.

It’s hard not to find drama when making a movie about a national spelling bee, where nearly three hundred kids are eliminated over the course of two days of white-knuckle competition. If Jeff Blitz’ Spellbound has any real flaw, it’s the sheer arbitrariness of the process of elimination - if this was Hollywood fiction, there’d be a cruel, snotty kid set up for ultimate humiliation at the hands of some poor underdog, but real life doesn’t run according to such neat scripts.

For most people, the underdog is Ashley, from the D.C. projects, whose uncles have promised they’ll watch her on ESPN from the various prisons where they’re incarcerated. Or it might be Angela, whose father came to Texas from Mexico as an illegal immigrant, and whose parents still don’t speak English. If Hollywood wanted to create a villain, they might choose privileged Emily from Connecticut, or Neil, whose driven father has trained him for the competition like a drill sergeant.

In the end, though, you end up sympathizing for all of these kids, each of whom - with the possible exception of well-adjusted Emily - have some kind of obvious or hidden handicap to struggle with, and whose accomplishments will inevitably be overshadowed by their school football team.

Shot in a simple, conventional fashion familiar to any PBS viewer, the points Spellbound makes are fleeting and subtle. For the parents, the bee is proof of the American dream, where hard work and talent pay off, but something else - something very interesting, perhaps even a bit troubling - sneaks through from time to time.

Neil’s grandfather back in India, we’re told, is paying a thousand people to pray around the clock for his grandson, but the word that almost defeats Neil is “Darjeeling”, which he has, for some reason, never heard at school or at home. Occasionally, it seems like the greatest obstacle the kids have to overcome isn’t the dictionary, or their parents’ ambitions for them, but the homogenizing pressure of mainstream culture, which can’t help but regard their gift with a sort of uncomfortable awe, a sneering envy that even the most “gifted” kids have a hard time understanding.