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Wednesday, May 25, 2005
A tale that will entrance you
The documentary boom continues unabated with "Spellbound," director Jeffrey Blitz's fascinating look at eight kids who entered America's National Spelling Bee in 1999. Released in 2003, this is the film Sophia Coppola was gushing about when she was in Tokyo for the release of "Lost in Translation." It's release here is more than a bit overdue, but well worth the wait.
With "Spellbound" -- titled "Challenge Kids" in Japan -- Blitz proves the virtues of a good doc. He can take a subject like "spelling bee" -- which is enough to make your eyes glaze over -- and from it sculpt a film that's funny, informative and insightful. It's a perfect example of the virtues of the indirect approach. While documentarians like Michael Moore go straight for the jugular in trying to analyze contemporary America -- all big issues, exclamation points and leading voiceovers -- Blitz tackles a topic that superficially isn't indicative of anything (except nerdiness), but through it paints a subtle portrait of the United States today.
The National Spelling Bee is an annual contest, held since 1925, to find the best speller in the 9-15 age group. Roughly 9 million kids compete in regional heats held at their schools, with only 249 going on to the final in Washington, D.C. This contest may be for kids, but some of the words they're required to spell would easily make adults cringe. Are you sure you know how to spell "mayonnaise" or "lycanthrope?" This writer, who prides himself on not using a spell-checker, was left with a brain-ache trying to deduce what the hell "apocope" meant, let alone how it was spelled.
"Spellbound" zooms in on eight young superspellers heading to the nationals, their backgrounds as diverse as the states they hail from. There's Angela from Texas, with braces and glasses, superficially gawky but with the kind of understated charm that would have Scarlett Johansen play her in any fictional re-make. Her achievement is all the more remarkable given that her father, Ubaldo, crossed into the States from Mexico illegally, and can't speak a bit of English.
Cut to Napur in Florida, whose parents Parag and Meena are first-generation immigrants from India, as are those of Neil in California. Neil does martial arts and prepares for the bee like a triathlete, spurred on by his father Rajesh, an overachiever who drives his son as hard as he does himself. Napur's parents are a bit more mellow, but her fire to win is apparent in the zeal with which she recounts beating the boy spellers at her school.
Ted is a tall, reticent boy in a lower-class region in Missouri (the correct spelling for "Mizzourah") where intelligence is not highly valued. With his love of weapons and black jackets, he looks like he'd be "bowling for Columbine" if not pouring his energy into spelling.
April from New Jersey is a more classic nerd, but her pessimistic attitude belies the eight hours a day she spends -- in the summer! -- poring over words. Her parents, as she perfectly describes them, are "like Edith and Archie Bunker"; her mom, the dingbat, admits she can't pronounce most of the words her daughter's studying. The opposite extreme is Emily, who lives in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, whose mother Suzanne is constantly cramming with her.
Rounding out the group are Ashley, the angelic daughter of a single mother in Washington, D.C., and Harry, a hyperactive little prat who looks like he stepped out of a Todd Solondz movie. His twisty, rubbery facial expressions while on the spot, struggling to recall a word, provide some great laughs.
The fact that this is a one-mistake-and-you're-out contest provides plenty of natural suspense, and you can't help but root for one kid or another. (Angela had my hopes, while I wished Harry a quick and humiliating defeat.) And unlike any Hollywood film, you don't know 20 minutes into it who's going to win.
But while the contest side of this is compelling and makes for great drama as the kids, all of whom you feel for, twist and squirm under the lights, it's the stuff that almost slips through the cracks -- the context -- that proves so fascinating. Down in Texas, one of Angela's neighbors comments, admiringly, that not all those Mexicans are "bums and thieves, there's some good ones too." Neil's mother Darshana notes how the competition isn't so hard because most American kids are so scattered and unfocused. If meditation caught on, she muses, things would be much tougher.
Any film full of kids -- before they hit their obnoxious teens -- has a certain built-in "kawaii" factor for adult viewers, and "Spellbound" is no exception. But with gentle strokes, it also sketches out bigger themes: America as a melting pot, the value of competition, modern attitudes toward winning and losing, high-pressure vs. low-key parenting. Amid the many docs lately that have taken America to task, rightly, for its failings, it's nice to find one that takes an honest agenda-free look and finds the egalitarian ideal -- of a meritocracy where hard work is rewarded -- still alive and well on a certain level, despite all the corrupt businessmen and silver-spoon politicians. The American Dream may not be knowing how to spell "prospicience," but the idea that knowledge and effort trump race and class certainly is.