Saturday, February 16, 2008


Although my interest is generally more in line with classic old movies, I'd like to recommend a wonderful recent movie airing this coming Monday at 1:55 PM ET on the Independent Film Channel: the 2002 documentary Spellbound.

Spellbound tells the story of eight youngsters who take part in that uniquely American phenomenon, the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. The first half of the movie looks at each of the eight kids one by one as they qualify for the national Bee by winning their local Bees. The kids represent a broad swathe of America in every way imaginable: ethnically, there's white, black, Asian, and one daughter of a Mexican immigrant; economically, they range from decidedly lower class (the Mexican-American girl whose father is still a farm laborer) to upper-middle class (the girl from Connecticut who debates whether they should bring the au pair with them to this year's Bee); and geographically, there are kids profiled from Northeast, South, Midwest, and California. The look at the kids is somewhat pedestrian and formulaic, although that can't really be helped: there aren't too many ways to present a group of children. But the director, Jeffrey Blitz, has done an excellent job in presenting the subjects in a way which does very little to play favorites (although you're probably going to find yourself preferring one or two over the others), and which engages in very little moralizing or politicking. Not only that, but the kids are on the whole much more well-adjusted than the adults (although most of the parents of these eight are fairly well-adjusted and realistic in their goals for their kids).

The second half of the film deals with the Bee in Washington DC itself, and this is where the movie really gets fun. On the face of it, watching children spell words seems as though it should be about as exciting as a trial looking at a copyright dispute: that is to say, you'd think it would take quite a bit of Hollywood literary license to make the subject interesting. But that's decidedly not the case. Having already met the kids, we have an interest in seeing them do well, especially when they're faced with arcane words they're unlikely to use on a regular basis as adults. (Unfortunately, the kids have gotten so good at spelling over the years that the organizers have to go to more obscure and foreign words in an attempt to trip them up.) One of the kids gets the word lycanthrope in the first round, and you can see a look shock cross her face as she hears her word: "Oh dear, I don't know if I know this word!" And each time one of the eight profiled kids gets a word wrong, it's genuinely a sad situation.

Spellbound was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, but had the misfortune of being up against Bowling for Columbine. And since the Academy documentary voters generally seem to pick their winning movies with their political beliefs in mind, it's obvious which movie was going to win, even if it's not the better (or truer) movie.

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