I can still vividly remember studying for my elementary school spelling bees, scrupulously poring over a black and yellow booklet full of long and complicated words, words that I would never, could never and should never use. Although I never accomplished nearly as much on the spelling bee circuit as the eight Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee participants featured in “Spellbound,” I can see a lot of my 10-year-old self in them – the meticulous nature, the needless studying, the belief that it somehow mattered in the grand scheme of life.
With time, I came to realize, as these kids may someday, the inherent absurdity of spelling bees and, to a greater extent, ESPN’s thorough coverage of the national event. But the innocence and obliviousness exuded by the “Spellbound” kids only adds to their charm. There’s still plenty of time for them to turn into jaded misanthropes, but for now, if the kids want to spell, then let them spell.
It’s under that premise that Jeff Blitz’s “Spellbound” operates, serving as neither a promotion nor a chastisement of spelling bee culture. Rather, it provides an enthusiastic yet unbiased look at a peculiar phenomenon and its equally peculiar participants.
But peculiar doesn’t even begin to describe some of them. Take, for example, Harry Altman, a child of no more than 10 years, who is already laden with enough character quirks to populate a dozen Wes Anderson films. It’s hard not to smile as he shifts his thoughts and attention rapidly; he peppers his speech with nervous, unsettling laughter and strange robotic noises; and he screws up his face and talks to himself between each letter as he struggles to spell “banns,” which, in his opinion, the moderator mispronounced.
Still, for all of their eccentricities, the children involved are genuine kids who have been raised by genuine parents. Blitz does his part by taking a hands-off approach and avoiding sensationalism, allowing his subjects to emerge as truly authentic people. He shares stories ranging from the humorous – like that of Nupur Lala, a girl who found herself outspelling three very jealous boys in a regional bee, only to be praised by a sign at a local Hooters restaurant exclaiming “Congradulations Nupur!” – to the inspirational – such as Angela Arenivar, daughter of Mexican immigrants who scarcely speak any English, who taught herself to succeed in a rural Texas town.
But perhaps the most telling moment doesn’t involve anyone overcoming difficult odds. It involves Neil Kadakia, an East Indian boy living in an affluent Orange County neighborhood. His parents would be considered overbearing and controlling by some, as Neil studies spelling with his father for several hours a day and spends additional time with spelling coaches. His father would like nothing more than to see his son win it all in Washington, but when Neil fails to meet his expectations, he isn’t met with the kind of scorn or disapproval you’d find in bad fiction. Instead, his father greets him with a smile and a hug.
It is moments like these that make “Spellbound” such a pleasure to watch. The personalities and back stories of these very unique, engaging and talented children are compelling enough to suppress the ludicrousness of even the National Spelling Bee itself. Spell on, you crazy diamonds.
Rating: 4 stars.