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The day I draft this is the day after Super Bowl XX-Something, and I have no idea who won. All I know is that Michael Jackson asked sister Janet to do something that would get some media attention away from him. But I do know who won the 1996 Scripps National Spelling Bee, and I can tell you that the competition was intense! Spellbound is the aptly title documentary that follows eight kids from local spelling bees to the national finals in D.C. Though one might shy away from what seems a dry topic, I hope to assist people in finding this fantastic film that's a whole lot more intriguing that even I, an exspurt speler, suspected it would be.
What makes this film so amazing is the depth to which director Jeffrey Blitz goes to interview not only the kids but their families. You see not only how driven and gifted these children are, but also how their parents and siblings relate to their achievements. I cannot remember all the names of the kids, but I hope you will watch this yourself and meet them. How delightful to meet The Girl from Arizona, a first-generation American whose father, an immigrant from Mexico, speaks no English. This girl has her heart in exactly the right place: she's proud of who she is, balanced in her quest for perfect spelling, and well-rounded in other areas of her life. And her parents are unconditionally loving toward her. Her older brother is also a strong character, someone who is proud of his family and heritage.
Such a contrast is The Rich Indian Kid, whose character, subtle as the faintest tea diffusion, is overshadowed by his self-made father, a disciplinarian spelling trainer who grills his son on thousands of words a day. As obsessive as this father is, his intentions are totally pure: to give success to his son. The amateur psychologist in me worried whether the son would ever manage to shine on his own; but his older sister, a spelling bee finalist herself, seems to have emerged into her own from the same rigorous training. As a bonus, the DVD gives brief "where are they now" data that suggests this character has experiences beyond the bee, though still with dad.
My favorite character to watch was the Wonky Jewish Boy, a squirrelly, comical lad whose hormones are too much for his seventh-grade body. It is his facial contortions, trying to spell, that open the movie. What fascinated me a lot about him was that they spent very little time discussing his training regimen. One must assume that he did some practice, but it wasn't prevalent on camera, which makes this character the most idiot-savant-like of the bunch, though no idiot. Mainly, he's a nerd.
Unlike The New-England Yuppie Girl, who was self-driven to study spelling words several hours a day. A competitive lass, she felt herself to be not the best singer in her choral group, and not the best equestrian in her riding group. Finding herself the best at spelling, she took the ball and ran. The Scripps Bee gets some coverage on CNN and the commentator picks the NEYG as a favorite.
All the characters are truly engaging. I found myself rooting for each and every one, as well as the kids I hadn't met but who turn up during the competition. What they go through! Did you know that if they miss just one letter, they are out and there's no take-backs or do-overs? What blew me away was an eighth grader misspelling heleoplankton. That's spelled right, and MS Word spell-checker doesn't even know it. But even more astonishing is that an eighth grader would attempt to spell it, and that several eighth graders spell even harder words. I mean, wouldn't you guess it was helioplankton, like Helios, the Greek God of the Sun?
The film makers build tension by interspersing the documentary equivalent of sidebars with expert timing between rounds of the spelling bee. There's a brief interview with Dr. Whatisname, the scholar who has administered the national spelling bee for umpteen years. Another sidebar comprises short visits with past national bee winners including the winner of the first U.S. bee, a man now in his eighties.
This is an excellent documentary. So much so that the wife and I went through all the DVD extras which include, besides "where are they now," three more segments with individual kids, for a total of eleven. Great film. Great editing. Great extras. You gotta see this.
©2003 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.