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Spellbound (2002)

Little kids. Big words. American dreams.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 97 minutes

UK Certificate: U

Amidst all the noise of Michael Moore's highly politicised acceptance speech for Best Documentary (for 'Bowling for Columbine') at this year's Academy Awards, a much quieter, gentler nominated documentary, Jeffrey Blitz's 'Spellbound', risked being entirely drowned out. Both films deal with American culture, but unlike Michael Moore, Jeffrey Blitz does not try endlessly to make himself the focus of his own film, preferring to sit back and allow his subjects to speak for themselves. The result is a film not as confrontational as 'Bowling for Columbine' and far less annoyingly one-sided – but every bit as insightful.

'Spellbound' follows eight regional spelling champions (all under fifteen years of age) as they compete with 241 others in that peculiarly American phenomenon, the National Spelling Bee. Representing a diversity of cultural, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, each child has not only a remarkable talent at spelling the most obscure words in the English language, but also a remarkable story behind that talent (e.g. April studies the dictionary for nine hours per day in her holidays but 'only six hours a day' during term – while the Mexican parents of Angela cannot speak English at all).

After introducing the eight children, the film documents the National Spelling Bee itself, intercutting interviews with the children and their parents about their aspirations, their fears, and their thoughts on the contest. What emerges is a picture of hard work, self improvement and competitive drive – in short, the American Dream in microcosm. And while 'Spellbound' should not be confused with the Hitchcock/Dali collaboration of the same name, it certainly has its own fair share of nail-biting suspense and off-the-wall surrealism.

There is suspense in the torturously prolonged moments on the podium when each competitor has to spell their impossibly difficult word. These scenes, full of stalling, pained grimaces, puzzled desperation and downright panic, will have you on the edge of your seat, and the disappointment or exhilaration which inevitably follows is tangible. The surrealism comes in the form of Harry, a seriously weird, hyperactive kid who tells unfunny jokes, talks like a robot and asks the cameraman if the boom mike is edible before bursting into creepy guffaws. Whether he turns out to be the next Woody Allen or the next Unabomber, you just know that this kid – like all of the competitors – has an interesting future.

In the end, no matter whether you conclude that the Spelling Bee is a national geek convention, 'a different form of child abuse', 'the happiest moment of my life', 'a war', a way to improve 'a corrupt society', 'a community process', or just another show on ESPN, watching these extraordinary young people spell words you have never heard of will leave you with a picture of a nation still dreaming that all adversities and all differences can be overcome by hard work, determination and dumb luck.

It's Got: Tips from an eleven-year old prodigy about how to succeed in the National Spelling Bee (basically, trust in Jesus, honour your parents and work hard), advice on how best to sedate a peacock, a really cool inflatable Star Wars chair, and lots of very specialised vocabulary.

It Needs: A big dictionary.


A documentary about a spelling competition which is funny, gripping, and somehow manages to take in much broader aspects of American society and immigrant culture along the way. In a word , T-H-A-U-M-A-T-U-R-G-Y.