Not the Hitchcock, though there are moments of equal nail-biting tension, this "Spellbound" is a funny and exciting and often moving documentary that follows eight contestants to the 1999 national spelling bee in Washington, D.C. Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz followed eight eighth-graders who had each won their respective regional or state bee, to compete against the best spellers in the annual Scripps-Howard finals, televised by ESPN. There were 247 kids in all, ages 11 to 13.
Blitz does the right thing for his film by picking his competitors early, visiting with them at their homes, letting us get to know them and their families. For instance Angela Arenivar, from a small town in south Texas, is the child of an illegal Mexican immigrant laborer, who does not speak English. Emily Stagg is a child of privilege from New Haven, Connecticut. Nupur Lala, from Tampa, has beaten three charming boys who tell us about her regional triumph (and a local shopping plaza has put up a sign reading "CONGRADULATIONS NUPUR"). Ashley White lives with her mother in the Washington, D.C. projects. Neil Kadakia, from San Diego, has a father who approaches the legendary Rose Hovick (mother of Gypsy Rose Lee) in stage-parenting; his father in India has hired 1,000 people to pray for Neil, and has promised to feed 5,000 others if he wins. If that isn't pressure I don't know what is. April Degideo comes from a family she describes as Archie Bunker-like; her father is a bartender in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
They study and they study and they study; one with Scrabble boards, another with a homemade crossword puzzle, another with the dictionary, still another with a telephone-book-size list of spelling-bee words. The parents are a mixed bag; we admire some, we are annoyed by, even come to detest others. One lovely parent, whose child lost out on a word of Christian significance, says afterwards, "I feel sorry for the boy from Texas who got yenta."
(In the interest of good journalistic practice I state here that my wife was in fact the Salt Lake City spelling bee champion in, well, an earlier date. Let's just say it predated by some time any coverage by ESPN.)
As we watch these children, knowing more about them and their lives than do those running the bee, we root for them to survive the first cut at the finals, then the second cut, the third, fourth and fifth. Those we love and hope for may drop early; there are no second chances here. One misplaced letter and out, is the rule. "Spellbound" has the tension of a great sporting event, on top of which is our knowledge that these are just kids, facing a challenge we adults might well run from ourselves. For that we admire them all the more.