- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

A documentary about child spelling champions sounds as dramatic as waiting all day for the cable repair truck to arrive. That “Spellbound” supplies plenty of white-knuckle tension is just one of the delicious surprises this documentary delivers.

Nominated for best documentary feature at the 2002 Academy Awards, “Spellbound” tracks eight wunderkinder as they descend upon the nation’s capital for the 1999 National Spelling Bee.

Culled from a cross section of America, the youngsters do more than spell a staggering array of abstruse words. They represent the American dream, both in their unshakeable faith in education and in their competitive mien.

“Spellbound” introduces us to children prepping for the biggest test of their young lives.

Texas resident Angela Arenivar draws moral support from her father, a farmer who never learned to speak English but wanted his daughter to have the kind of education he missed.

When Angela wins a regional spelling bee, her joy is contagious.

“I never cried for being happy, that’s how happy I was” the tear-stricken child says in unaccented English.

Tampa resident Nupur Lala, who squeezes in violin lessons between her word studies, feels the cultural pressure to succeed.

“You don’t get any second chances in India the way you do in America,” she says.

Few films can match the mounting pressure felt watching the participants struggle with complex words. The children ask for each word’s definition and roots — anything to give them an edge. If they’re wrong, they hear a bell toll, its tiny chime signaling their immediate exit.

Using sparse folk music as its backdrop, “Spellbound” occasionally plays out like a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

We can’t help but laugh at a few of the featured players, particularly one child who mugs incessantly as he wrangles over each word.

Critics make the spurious claim that Mr. Guest doesn’t mock his lead characters, but “Spellbound” clutches its stars to its heart and won’t let go.

Spelling, at first blush, seems hardly a skill worth such attention. Many of us spell poorly. Modern spell-check devices iron out our ugliest errors.

Director Jeff Blitz and producer Sean Welch beg to differ.

The two capture an intriguing subculture with enough nuances to make their exploits identifiable. That the duo use the spelling obsession as a metaphor for our country’s resiliency without waving a single flag is a sublime pas de deux between filmmakers and material.

The feat is so impressive we almost overlook how much reverence is given to the champion spellers.

Sure, we sneak inside the children’s homes, poke through their dog-eared dictionaries and chuckle at their square but decent parents.

Where is the dark side? The missed afternoons swimming with pals as the contestants pore over their textbooks?

A few of the parents appear ripe for closer scrutiny, such as one who promises to feed the poor back in India should his child emerge victorious. The cameras never move in close enough for us to see more.

The children themselves are a clever lot, nowhere near as self-aware as one fears going in.

These youngsters aren’t looking for 15 minutes of reality fame. They just want to learn every single word in the English lexicon.

Mr. Blitz did himself a disservice by tracking so many students. A smaller group would have given us more time to know each contestant and feel even greater stress rooting for them.

“The Matrix Reloaded” manufactured drama in a computer’s hard drive with its expensive special effects. “Spellbound” does the same — for far less — by zooming in on a contestant’s face as he or she wrestles over the proper spelling of another $10 word.


TITLE: “Spellbound”


CREDITS: Directed by Jeff Blitz, produced by Sean Welch.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes


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