With the wholly engrossing documentary Spellbound (punny title duly noted), Jeffrey Blitz savvily covers the 1999 National Spelling Bee--a.k.a. the 72nd Annual Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee--by necessarily hedging his bets and profiling eight competitors out of 249. Each remains surprisingly natural before the camera to allow for a funny and heart-tugging account of American competition, obsession, and family.
In fact, this G-rated documentary makes wholesome family entertainment as well as food for discussion about work ethics, values, and perspectives amongst the adolescent set. Though the film moves as rapidly as possible through the eight subjects, we get a sense of each's environment and regimen. Some of the students (7th and 8th graders) are wholly self-motivated and observed by wondering parents; others are driven by their focused guardians, who clearly have issues from their own lives intertwined in their children's lives.
The students also provide a cross-section of American culture and class--hailing as they do from well-off or struggling families in Texas, New Jersey, Missouri, California, Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., where the Bee is held over two days of competition. Two of the students are also Indian-American, allowing an opportunity to graze against some blithe or casual racism. Mostly, though, we absorb the culture of gifted kids, who face a certain ostracism--keenly felt, though mostly kept far offscreen--but also a fair measure of pride and support from peers and, especially, family.
One girl, Angela Arenivar, warmly dedicates her achievements to her proudly beaming, non-English-speaking father, a Texas farm laborer. Another, Nupur Lala, precociously enjoys outwitting her local competition: three haplessly outclassed boys. Harry Altman--a pint-sized raconteur--contorts his face in intellectual agony at each word while onstage, but hilariously rat-a-tat-tats out his interior monologue at every moment offstage. Each person's distinctive personality insinuates itself quickly--we're hooked for good as the film, at the halfway mark, immerses us in the competition itself.
In Washington, D.C., we meet the earnest Dr. Alex J. Cameron, the long-time pronouncer at the National Spelling Bee (and hence its face and voice, widely disseminated via ESPN's annual live broadcast); Cameron died earlier this year. Blitz also sneaks a ninth profile in the back door, of George "Trust in Jesus!" Thampy, known to the others as serious competition since he made the 1998 finals. Blitz even lines up a few of the bee's alumni, including the competition's first champion from 1925.
To use the climactic word, all of this logorrhea (excessive use of words) amounts to a gripping narrative, enhanced by Blitz with sure editing and a splash of transitional style: stripes, like those of a flag, represent each student, and fade away with each elimination. The snapshots of America's gifted youth are perhaps best encapsulated in an ironic, extended, found metaphor of misspelled congratulatory signs, like the one which proclaims "Congradulations, Nupur" from the marquee of a Hooters restaurant. Even in glory, the children are cast out from mainstream normality, for worse and for better.