Logorrhea. L-O-G-O-R-R-H-E-A. Logorrhea. Ironically, words like this are seldom used in everyday speech, but are frequently used during the National Spelling Bee, the crème de la crème of the spelling world. An annual affair in Washington, D.C. and broadcast live on ESPN, the National Spelling Bee represents the culmination of regional spelling champions all competing for a $12,000 cash prize and the all-important title as the nation’s best speller. “Spellbound” captures this phenomenon wonderfully with nail-biting drama and humor. Profiling eight students from all walks of life, the film takes us into their homes, their families, their ups and downs, and how they wound up in the limelight. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, “Spellbound” is all about big dreams, big words, and big hearts.
The film covers such unique stories as Angela Arenivar, a true representation of the American dream. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, came to the Texas panhandle illegally to start a new life. Despite the language barrier, Angela immersed herself in verbiage, teaching herself without the assistance of a coach or a sophisticated software program. On the other hand, Neil Kadakia’s family descends from India and has capitalized on the American dream. His father has earned his success and has provided his son with all the preparation materials needed to succeed – computer programs, spelling coaches, and foreign language teachers to drive him to the finish line.
There are stories of hardship such as Ted Brigham, a rural Missouri junior high schooler living in his family’s doublewide trailer. Ted excels in many things in addition to spelling, like math, however his academic achievements are seldom rewarded in a school with basketball fever. Equally challenged, Ashley White believes her life is like a movie, full of trials and tribulations. Growing up in the D.C. projects, she turns to prayer as her guide and uses innovative Scrabble tiles to practice her spelling.
Some of the kids are making a return appearance to the National competition. Nupur Lala makes her second consecutive trip after falling short in the infamous third round. Although her parents downplay the importance of the spelling bee, her motivation is spurned by three boys intent on leaving her spellbound. And Emily Stagg makes her third appearance at Nationals. Recognizing her weaknesses in equestrian and choir, she turns to spelling as a means to excel and beat out her friends.
Eventually, all eight kids wind up at the National Spelling Bee with hundreds of other 14 year olds from across the country. Letter by misspelled letter, contestants are eliminated until only one remains and is crowned champion. Will Neil succumb to the pressure of his parents and distant relatives? Will Harry’s quick wit help him sidestep the word “Banns?” Will Ashley make this the second happiest day in her mother’s life?
The first National Spelling Bee took place in 1925 with only nine contestants and has since blossomed into the nation’s longest running educational program with roughly 243 contestants annually. Stemming from community-wide spelling bees on a local level and spanning the countryside, while also including such external regions Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, and Europe, the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee is one the oldest traditions in the Americana fabric, as interwoven as apple pie.
“Spellbound” is a representation of the American dream, a documentary with a lot of warmth. It methodically progresses through each child’s story with open sincerity so much so that at times, it’s unexpectedly funny. Following each of the kids in individualized segments, you get to know their quirks, feel their ups and downs, and understand what drives them to study countless hours without hesitation. They are a true delight, reciting complex diction in different styles, noises, and contortions.
Part of what makes this a successful film is how the filmmakers break the boundaries between the audience and the screen. They create a style in which the kids can be themselves, unscripted, and accessible. This, in turn, makes for compelling drama because once at the National Spelling Bee, you feel close to them; you incur the heartache and mental anguish at their slightest miscues as well as the jubilation when their improbable guess pays off. The only downside to this approach is that once eliminated, the ending feels a little empty or anticlimactic because you realize their stories are much richer than any single spelling bee.
I am always amazed by quality documentary work and “Spellbound” is no exception. It would be easy to piece together a film like this after the final rounds had played out. But this was not the case. The film represents the brilliant directorial debut of Jeff Blitz (director/producer) and his producer buddy Sean Welch. They began the process of interviewing candidates and their families prior to the National Spelling Bee. Logging over 160 hours of footage, the filmmakers whittled their story from twelve students to eight. And with exhausting research, they were able to capture the experiences of eight unique students, all of who just so happened to make it to the national competition.
Call it luck, call it a cliché but this documentary is not about who wins. It’s about personal triumph, determination, and the most importantly, building strong work habits, good ethics, and a solid family foundation. With all of the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that bombard us on reality television, it’s nice to see such a compelling and good-natured reality film with a positive message. It’s a tragic irony that these kids are in a world by themselves, segregated by their intellect. Although comical at times, you realize that they are a lot smarter than any number of memorized words. They are all grounded, dream big, and work hard to achieve their goals.
Scintillating, suspenseful, and sentimental, “Spellbound” is an entertaining drama that plays out like an Agatha Christie mystery…”and then there were none.” Interestingly, the origin of word “bee” comes from an American term used to describe a community social gathering where friends and neighbors engage in a single activity with the prime purpose of helping one another. And through this film, we see how the National Spelling Bee personifies that definition. Those who earn the right to participate share a common goal and interest, battling against words rather than each other. Although many may see the spelling bee as a meaningless or brainless exercise, those who partake in the activity realize something greater: “The journey [itself] is the reward.”