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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 hullabaloo of Michael Moore's highly politicised acceptance speech for Best Documentary (for 'Bowling for Columbine') at the 2003 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 Scripps Howard 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 dedication, 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 is faced with their worst sesquipedalian nightmare and has to come up with the goods. 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 idiosyncratic, hyperactive kid who tells jokes, talks like a robot and asks the cameraman if the boom mike is edible before bursting into creepy guffaws. Harry, like all the competitors in the film, has been captured at that fascinating moment, just before adolescence, when any future seems possible.

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: Advice on how best to sedate a peacock, a really cool inflatable Star Wars chair, lots of very specialised vocabulary, and Spunky the dog.

It Needs: A big dictionary.

DVD Extras Nice animated menus; scene selection; English subtitles option. Audio commentary by director Jeff Blitz and producer/sound recorder Sean Welch, with occasional interventions by editor Yana Gorskaya and re-recording mixer Peter Brown. Despite a suggestion that Blitz has a stutter exacerbated by microphones, he contributes articulately, and often. Comments cover: the genesis of the project and Blitzs initial search for appropriate competitors; the rôle of chance in narrowing down the list; affectionate anecdotes about the kids, their parents and the filming process (which involved a tiny crew); the revelation that over 160 hours of footage was shot; the films success on the festival circuit; and lots of arcane lore about the National Spelling Bee itself. There is also a theatrical trailer; deleted scenes covering three additional spelling bee competitors (one of whom has a mother with a truly frightening deer woman sculpture); epilogues giving brief written updates on the lives of the competitors; an interactive spelling bee challenger using a selection of ten previous winning words; a statement from the National Literary Association, who supported a UK charity screening of the film despite their clear caginess about the educational value of spelling bees (accompanied by photos of Nicholas Parsons at the event); and two DVD-rom extras (an educational guide and a hangman game). DVD Extras Rating: 8/10


This funny, gripping microcosm of the American dream and immigrant culture will stay with you for more than a spell.