Movie Review
Spellbound poster
By Todd Heustess     Published June 6, 2003
US Release: April 30, 2003

Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz

Running Time: 95 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $5,728,000
So enthralling, engrossing, suspenseful, and enjoyable
I would have never thought that a documentary about the National Spelling Bee would be so enthralling, engrossing, suspenseful, and enjoyable.

But Spellbound, a new documentary that tracks 8 participants in the National Spelling Bee, is all the above as well as heartwarming and thoroughly entertaining. The filmmakers profile 8 participants among the 249 who competed in the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.; and it's the 8 kids and their stories that make the film so compelling and so uniquely American. The age limit to compete in the Spelling Bee is 14, so the kids profiled range in age from 11 - 14, and in many ways it's their unvarnished awkward adolescence that makes them so endearing.
One girl from the projects of Washington D.C. introduces herself by saying "My life is like a movie: There's adversity and then I overcome it." Another girl from Texas is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and her parents do not speak English. One boy from California seemingly has the weight of an entire Indian village on him, as his father arranged for over 4,000 people to pray for his son. A boy from New Jersey occasionally speaks in robotic voices and will be forever known for his creative facial expressions while competing.

All the kids? profiles (without exception) are bright, charming, and winning; when they begin to compete in the Spelling Bee in Washington, you want all of them to win. The suspense as they begin to spell words that you've probably never heard of is surprisingly acute; you hang on every letter as they try to stave off elimination. As they are eliminated, you are right there with them, wanting to reach out and console them. You may want to strangle some of the parents involved but none of the kids come across as pretentious or unlikable. They are all great kids, who for better or worse have dedicated a significant portion of their lives to spelling competitions.

It's a little disturbing (when you think about it afterwards) how indicative the movie is of the competitive nature of American life ? how we as a society can take something that's fun and make it stressful and super competitive. These kids are under immense pressure while they are competing and I felt myself wondering "why?"

Still, the kids are so incredibly wonderful that while I was occasionally alarmed at how focused they were on spelling competitions, I still wanted them to do well. Spellbound is a wonderful profile on a uniquely American event and one of the most entertaining documentaries in recent years.
Todd's Grade: A-
Todd's Overall Grading: 13 graded movies
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