The mother of one of the spellers in Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary joked that spelling bees are just another form of child abuse. As a former speller myself, I couldn’t agree more. When I won my junior high bee, the runner-up exploded at the indignity and unfairness of it all. She, like so many kids, placed too much importance on the competition.
Spellbound was shot on digital video and edited on a Macintosh computer (except for some muffled sound and the occasional dropped frame, you’ll probably never notice). It follows eight kids from their regional bees through the 1999 national championship in Washington, D.C.
As he introduces each one, Blitz shows us how they prepare for the bee. All of them use a dictionary and word lists. Some of them have teachers. Some are self-directed, while others are under the direction of their parents.
One family goes so far as to hire several tutors, one for each of several foreign languages, hoping to conquer any words that came into English from outside. One boy’s father compiles a database of all the words used in the last several bees. He drills his son in a 12-step mental process starting with asking for the definition and ending with spelling the word in his head before spelling it out loud.
The competition is fierce. In fact, Blitz says watching the previous year’s competition on ESPN inspired him to make this documentary, but it’s not just the competition that makes this movie so watchable.
Spellbound’s great achievement is that it captures a broad cross-section of America. Without seeming contrived, it unites an unlikely mix of cultures and classes all coming together to compete in an academic endeavor.
One boy raises peacocks. He demonstrates how docile they become when held upside-down. Another girl is proud to be a vegetarian.
The wealthy, well-to-do, white family in Connecticut mulls whether to bring their au pair with them this year. Meanwhile, Ashley, the whip-smart black girl from D.C., whose two uncles are in prison, takes the subway by herself across town to the national competition.
The home-schooled Indian boy speaks first and foremost of Jesus; his father calls America “morally bankrupt.” The other Indian boy’s family embraces the comforts of American capitalism; Neil attends an Episcopal private school but his family keeps their own religious beliefs — his father’s den features a picture of his Indian spiritual leader, and his grandfather paid a thousand Indians to chant and pray for his victory.
Angela was born in America because her grandfather crossed the Rio Grande, illegally, decades ago. He hoped by doing so he could offer his children and grandchildren a better life. Angela’s father thinks her success — and a trip to Washington, D.C. — is a great way to tell him “thanks.”
In-between the spelling and the spellers, Blitz finds time for a few tangents.
It seems the best way to support your local spelling “chapms” is to put up a sign “congradulating” them for their success.
He interviews champion spellers from previous years, including the first U.S. Spelling Bee winner, Frank Neuhauser, who won in 1925, and a more recent winner who conceded that winning may have been more of a liability than an asset when it came to finding dates.
He also briefly interviews Alex Cameron, the “pronouncer” for the bee since 1978, who died this year in February.
Blitz comes back to the spellers and the 1999 championship to wrap up the movie. He even finds a way to close the movie the same way it opened. The first scene in the film is of Harry, a hyperactive, admittedly talkative boy whose mind wanders far and wide. The winning word is “logorrhea,” meaning incoherent talkativeness.