Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Spelling is like pulling teeth for the semi-literate masses. To make a documentary about a national spelling competition for school children must be masochism, or madness.

Actually, it's a stroke of genius.

Copy picture

Jeffrey Blitz chooses eight contenders from diverse backgrounds from all over America and follows them through regional heats to the three-day final in an hotel in Washington, DC. He follows their families, too.

Competing at this level demands anything up to eight hours a day training. It seems like an obscure form of child abuse, especially since one mistake with one letter in a single word means instant elimination. The competitive tension and accumulative stress becomes almost unbearable - and that's just for the audience.

These teenagers are not protégés, but they can be witty, self-assured and eccentric. To call them outsiders is like saying the school swot is from another planet. They are different from their peers, because what they do is incomprehensible to those who run with the pack. Their alienation is their strength and the sheer determination of their endeavour deserves unconditional admiration.

It is noticeable how many of the finalists are Asian. Two of Blitz's eight are Indian and their parents understand that advancement in such a prestigious event can only be beneficial. "You don't get second chances in India, like you do in America," one says. Their children are meticulously well mannered and modest.

Angela's parents came across the border from Mexico 20 years ago. Her father is chief cattleman on a Texan ranch. Even now, he can't speak the language, taking the view, according to his son, that the cows don't speak English, either. Angela's enthusiasm and spirit is irrepressible.

The character of the contenders is what gives the film its heart. They are very special people and you can't bear it when one of them makes a mistake and is gone. You don't want to lose any of them.

By the end, you are in a state of pure emotion, not unlike the parents who sit and watch, suffering every hesitation as if it was a rapier thrust. As only one of Blitz's eight remains in the last three, the excitement crackles like lightning.

How could the correct letters in the correct order for a word you have never heard of and don't know what it means matter so much? After watching Spellbound, the question becomes irrelevant. It matters more than much, because you think you know the contestants and empathise with them. And knowing is feeling.

Reviewed on: 08 Oct 2003
Share this with others on...
Spellbound packshot
Documentary tracking US kids as they enter the national spelling bee competition.
Amazon link

Director: Jeffrey Blitz

Year: 2002

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US


Search database:

If you like this, try:

Akeelah and the Bee
Bee Season