2002, directed by Jeffery Blitz
Long time reader, first time poster. I just saw this documentary film yesterday, and today, feel the need to tell others about it. Spellbound follows the stories of eight participants in the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee:
Angela is the daughter of immigrant ranchers from a small town in Texas. Her family’s trip to Washington for the spelling bee is enough for her father, who speaks little English, to die happy and feel like everything was worth it.
Ted is a lonely boy from the Midwest who has trouble making friends because he’s smart and lives on a farm with peacocks.
Nupur is a hard-working student from Florida, who plays the violin.
Neil is the brother of a former 5th place winner of the national bee; his parents have hired a personal spelling bee coach and numerous foreign language tutors to help him learn the languages of origin. His grandfather has paid over a thousand people to pray for him in India.
April is a shy, pessimistic girl from Pennsylvania with goofy but lovable parents. She studies for the spelling bee seven to eight hours a day in the summertime.
Emily is girl from New England who rides horses and sings choir. She is one of the few returning to the national spelling bee competition.
Ashley is a girl from DC who sees the bee as another obstacle to overcome in her troubled life.
Harry is a very energetic, young boy whose motor-mouth skills are indeed a sight to behold.
And so the filmmaker follows this bunch around, from the regional spelling bee competitions through the national one, interviewing their parents, friends, and teachers about what makes them great. The participants, sometimes considered geeky on a normal day, are transformed into local heroes in their towns. At one point, a local Hooters puts up a sign congratulating Nupur, although congratulations is misspelled.
It is difficult to express what about this documentary is so gripping. Some of the preparation rituals before the national bee will blow your mind. A requisite amount of national spelling bee history and Americana is thrown into the mix, without being too distracting from the human interest stories at hand. We get to peek into the stressful world of the actual competition at the end of the film. As those debate-types out there probably know, the success of covering the spelling bee on ESPN was the inspiration for CSTV to do their debate documentary about the NDT. Spelling bee competitions are a strange sub-culture, made even stranger by stressed out parents, and I suspect there is an affinity between spelling competitions and the academic debate world. I was alternately smiling and crying throughout the film—it pulls on all of the right heart strings for me. In the end, one of the eight participants that Blitz focuses on does indeed win the whole competition. I won’t spoil it though…you’ll be happy to see for yourself.