Spellbound (2002) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Nupur Lala, Harry Altman, Emily Stagg, Ashley White, Neil Kadakia, April DeGideo, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Review published May 8, 2004
Spellbound is a mostly lighthearted documentary which explores the world of the spelling bee, covering several different children in their preparation for, and performance in, the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. We follow only eight of the 249 total contestants, and I won't spoil the film for those who don't know the outcome by saying whether these are the eight most successful contestants, or whether one of the eight wins the event. What I will say is that they all come from different backgrounds...some in poverty, some well-to-do...and director Blitz does a wonderful job in capturing a bit of their home life, as well as the steps they have undergone to prepare for the most important event in their lives up to that point.
The first half of the film is an introduction to each of the eight children, along with interviews with their parents, their siblings, and also some of their teachers who may have assisted them along the way. In this fashion, we do have a rooting interest in hoping for the best for some of them -- or root against them, if we find the child annoying, or in many cases, the parents as well.
As a documentary, it is entertaining, even if not really particularly informative. It does give a personality to the event that you might not otherwise get if you were to watch the contest on television, and there is a definite tension when one of the eight comes up to the microphone, as we anxiously watch them struggle to come up with the proper spelling to words they may never have heard before.
As entertaining as the film may be, it really is just that: entertainment. It's not really educational (unless you manage to learn how to spell words you had no idea how to spell before), and Blitz could also have done a better job in making the proceedings more dramatic and interesting with a bit more background to the importance of the contest, instead of showing us how proud each parent is of their child. However, it's hard to criticize too much, as Spellbound easily is one of the more entertaining and audience-interactive films you're likely to see. Recommended for all audience, but especially so for parents who take an active interest in their children's' educations.
©2004 Vince Leo