Movie Review: Spellbound (2002)

Thus completing my review trilogy of word competition-based documentaries.

Spellbound (2002)

Starring: Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg, Ashley White

Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz

I’ll admit, I’ve watched some of the National Spelling Bee Championships in my day. They tend to show it on days of the year when there’s nothing else on (New Year’s or Christmas Eve or something like that). And I’ll tell ya, it can be gripping. They give these kids a bunch of words that I’ve never heard of in my life (and I’m a reasonably educated dude), and they have to reach into the deep bowels of their still-forming young minds to figure out how to spell them, lest they be humiliated on ESPN by the sound of the harrowing ding of the bell. They then have to make the walk of shame to the “comfort room”, forced to confront the fact that, like astronauts who once walked on the moon, this will be the high point of their lives. Everything they do after this point will be downhill, but unlike Neil Armstrong, they walked away losers.

Okay, so maybe it’s not that big a deal, but the drama is real. You know how it’s sometimes difficult to watch someone screw something up in a movie, that you almost have to look away because it’s so embarrassing for them? Well, this is real, and it’s kids. So I figured this documentary should be able to build some drama, as the event itself manages it by itself, without ever investing us in the players involved.

In Spellbound, director Jeffrey Blitz introduces us to eight different kids that will all be competing in the National Spelling Bee finals. Each kid comes from a different walk of life, using different approaches and techniques for the Bee. Some study for hours a day, others are more casual, one even has parents who will bring in specialists in different languages to help him master word origins… when he’s not practicing meditative techniques. For the most part, these are sweet, special kids, adolescent dorks that are neither annoyingly precocious or cocky teens. Harry Altman‘s tics and quirks get annoying pretty quick, and Ted Brigham comes off as a bit of a sociopath, but other than that, I liked them all very quickly. I wanted them to succeed, and appreciated the fun they had with spelling, and the determination they exhibited in competition.

For me, the best part of the movie was seeing how the parents were bursting with pride for their children. They would try to not sound too geeked out about how proud they are of these special children, so as to not embarrass them too much, but you could tell that they were barely holding it in. Even the parents of Neil Kadakia, who paid for all the specialised tutors and seemed overly invested in his success in the competition, managed to maintain the perspective that it wasn’t as important that he won the competition as it was that he walked away from learning the importance of hard work and investing yourself in something. Seeing the parents enthusiasm and love for their children, which never came off in an ugly pageant-mom or aggressive hockey-dad sort of way, was truly touching.

The kids were fun, the parents were great, the competition was tense… unfortunately, the editing was flawed. The director did a great job introducing us to the cast, then making us care about their fates. Then, he let them down when the movie drew to its climax, blowing the triumphant moment when one of the eight children won the bee, by revealing it before showing us the moment of triumph. As the contestant was given their final word, the movie moved into its final montage of flashbacks and summaries of our cast, which gives away that the contestant would be successful. Worse, they mix in footage of the contestant enjoying their victory, before showing how they were successful. The drama of the event is easy, a child struggles with a word, spells it out, then waits a terrible second that must feel like an eternity to find if they will hear the offending ding of the bell that tells them if they were incorrect. The movie robs that drama through its segue to a montage, then emerges to show us what we already know, that they spelled the word correctly and has won the competition. Imagine a football movie where they show the QB drop back to pass, then show a montage that includes the team’s victory celebration, then comes back to show us that the pass went for the winning score. Talk about anticlimax.

But, the blown finale doesn’t ruin the movie, which is still a lot of fun. It’s worth a viewing, and should renew your faith in today’s children, if only the ones that could spell.

3.5/5

Related Reviews:
Murderball (2005)
Wordplay (2006)
Word Wars (2004)

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