Film and TV

Under a Spell

The most compelling characters in Jeff Blitz and Sean Welch's vivid, eye-opening documentary Spellbound are not the film's geeky, often bewildered twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, who find themselves shoved into the spotlight at the National Spelling Bee, but the overbearing, variously motivated parents who do the shoving. The film has generally been praised as "uplifting" and "cheering," and that's true -- at least in part. But some of the ruthless backstage Svengalis we meet here could probably be charged with child abuse. You can't help hoping that a few of these kids, once the fog of intimidation lifts, give Dad a good whack on the skull with the Oxford English Dictionary.

The bee chronicled here took place in 1999, but it's the same story every year. Tune in to ESPN for the finals -- ESPN? This is sport? -- and you'll find three dozen skinny-legged kids with braces on their teeth and numbered placards hanging around their necks, grappling with obscure, insanely multisyllabic words that most well-read adults have never heard of and most of the contestants will never use in a sentence -- or anywhere else. One miss and yer outta here. Interestingly, a great number of the kids are the children of immigrants striving to assimilate, many of them South Asians, but neither ESPN nor the bland sponsor-folk from the Scripps Howard media chain (parent of Denver's Rocky Mountain News) attempt to explain any of that -- or to get beneath the surface at all.

Credit rookie filmmakers Blitz and Welch, then, with unearthing the real drama. In tracing the paths of eight young spellers from regional U.S. competitions to the annual bee in Washington, D.C., these observant documentarians bypass Scripps Howard's earnest public pose and show us what a hard-nosed, cutthroat and sometimes touching struggle it can be for a kid to move up from "monotonous" in rural Missouri to "darjeeling" in the nation's capital. The filmmakers went to windswept Perryton, Texas, to meet Angela Arenivar, whose modest Mexican parents don't speak English and who feels pressured to make good for them. In Tampa, Blitz and Welch spotted the marquee in front of the local Hooters outlet, which offered local winner Nupur Lala "Congradulations." They found sullen, alienated Ted Brigham in rural Rolla, Missouri, where football is a lot more popular than reading, and in San Clemente, California, they visited with shell-shocked Neil Kadakia, whose obsessive engineer father was drilling 7,000 to 8,000 words per day into his son's twelve-year-old head and had hired a team of spelling coaches versed in assorted foreign languages. "America is great," Dad tells us. "If you work hard, you will make it."

Maybe, but of the nine million kids who participate in local spelling bees each year, only one can win the National, and by the time the film gets to Washington, we see how great the pressure has become -- for the vocab-stuffed contestants and their sweaty-palmed parents. Little wonder that the losers are escorted, one by one, into something called the "comfort room," or that little Emily Stagg, a privileged girl from New Haven, Connecticut, who talks about her riding lessons and her family's au pair, shows nothing but relief when she's eliminated: "Now I can throw away the books!" she exults.

From Little League to the mini-beauty pageants to the SATs, so many American kids are hounded to succeed, it's a wonder more of them don't flip out, and Spellbound hints that the heat parents put on their children at the spelling bee may not be the best thing in the world. It's worth noting that the winner of the 2003 contest, thirteen-year-old Sai Gunturi, had been trying for four years; when Colorado's top speller was knocked out in the sixth round, his mother filed an appeal on the grounds that the word he missed was unfairly selected. Even the dimmest wits among us can spell sour grapes.

This entertaining, sometimes hilarious documentary is also cautionary, and it should be required viewing for all soccer moms, every unstable father who's ever started a fistfight at a kiddy hockey game, and admissions officers at every college in the country, large and small. What we see here is brave striving...and the dark side of ambition. As a bonus, the film even bears a useful relationship to Hitchcock's original Spellbound, made in 1945. In that classic thriller, concerned psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman seeks to explore the unresolved childhood traumas of Gregory Peck, grown up now and unjustly accused of murder. What'll you bet poor Greg couldn't spell "palimpsest" when he was twelve, Mom locked him in the hall closet for three days and he never got over it?

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo