The word was “liniment.” I was a 6th grader who’d won my grade school spelling bee, thus earning the right to represent my hometown in the annual county wide spelling bee. To be broadcast on the radio. Big-Time Stuff.
Unfortunately, while all the other kids in the first round were getting cream puff words like “dog,” “cat,” and “run,” I drew the word “liniment.” I didn’t even know what the hell it was. A desperate, perfunctory and totally incorrect stab at it — “l-e-n-a-m-e-n-t” — and I was out of the competition.
Perhaps that’s why my palms got a little sweaty watching director Jeff Blitz’s gradually riveting documentary “Spellbound.” The film follows eight young competitors of all socio-economic backgrounds from all across the country as they compete in the National Spelling Bee. This high-pressure Super Bowl of the vocabulary, held in Washington, DC, has exploded in size. From nine kids competing for $500 at the inaugural 1925 event, the NSB now starts out with 249 regional winners — out of some 9 million initial entrants — spelling it out for the $10,000 Grand Prize.
Blitz effectively intercuts biographical information on the eight entrants the film follows with interviews from past champions and key moments from the competition itself. Now granted, a spelling bee in and of itself isn’t the most visually compelling subject in the world. Blitz compensates, however, by focusing on the faces; the anguish, tension, relief and celebrations clear in their expressions as the spellers proceed though the competition.
There are too many subjects here. In fact, just meeting the eight kids we follow takes up the entire first half of this film. What’s surprising, however, is that as the field gets winnowed down, we actually do get to know the survivors well enough to develop an empathy for them, if not a downright rooting interest.
“Spellbound” draws an unspoken parallel with, of all things, beauty pageants, complete with unnaturally driven kids and nervously supportive parents desperately trying not to appear too pushy. From this somewhat dubious similarity, “Spellbound” surprises, ultimately demonstrating with its young subjects nothing less than the tremendous possibilities of America.