directed by Jeffrey Blitz
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover It doesn't surprise me that Spellbound has been garnering more acclaim and attention than most documentaries: it's a gentle and untaxing film whose drama is not so far removed from the flashy arena of "American Idol". Despite collecting a disparate group of people in the same event (the 1999 National Spelling Bee held in Washington, DC), Spellbound doesn't give enough detail to draw any conclusions about the participants' involvement, nor does it place the whole notion of the competition in a historical context so that we might understand it better. In the end, the film is just a record of American striving that exists in a vacuum, offering the thrill of competition and the agony of defeat with only cursory glances towards things beyond the moment.
It's not for lack of raw material: Whatever else I can say for director Jeffrey Blitz, he's done an excellent job of finding a varied group of youthful spellers with different motives for joining. There is Angela, daughter of Mexican immigrants who speak no English, who has fought on her own to be an intellectual champion; Ashley, daughter of a single mother in the mean streets of Washington; and Neil, son of can-do East Indian immigrants with an unwavering belief in American opportunity. There is also no dearth of colourful personalities, such as the manic and garrulous Harry and the quiet and withdrawn April. The film lives and dies on its broad mix of backgrounds and points of view, and gains whatever interest it has on its constant changes from one child to the other.
But these attempts at characterization are half-hearted and disjointed. They give you headlines about these junior strivers, but no story; the film's abbreviated length keeps you from truly knowing these children, and understanding what drove them to seek the jewel in the spelling crown. The film needs to be a Hoop Dreams epic but settles too easily for a 97-minute Kids Spell the Darndest Things, and as a result is only fitfully gripping in its accounts of discipline and determination. Hurtling from one subject to another, Blitz winds up doing them a disservice by reducing them to sound bites on the way to competition.
Furthermore, there's no real angle on the spelling bee itself, either historical or cultural--it's simply a place where intelligent kids go to compete, and one roots for favourites as one would vote for American Idols. The film cries out for some context on the contest's origins, but settles for one sentence late in the picture that is passed over fairly quickly; while there is surely there a story to be told on such a bizarre idea for a competition, Blitz and company aren't telling what that might be, and so the purpose of the documentary seems vague and arbitrary. By the time the actual tournament rolls around, it's simply a drama about which of the interviewees will make it to the top, and although that's interesting as a sporting event, it doesn't make you understand the competition or its participants beyond anything that has come before. The results are far from dishonourable, but less than stellar; if you see only one documentary this year, this isn't the one. Originally published: May 23, 2003.