It's difficult to take Spellbound seriously at first, it so evokes the kind of mockumentaries Christopher Guest and company have mastered in recent years. Like Best in Show or A Mighty Wind, the film tackles a curious, offbeat subject -- spelling bees -- and introduces a large cast of oddball characters who squirm for the spotlight.
The thing is, these characters are real people, and no parody could accurately convey the acute and authentic tension Spellbound generates, even if some laugh-out-loud freakiness punctuates it along the way.
The Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature follows a handful of honor students preparing for competition in the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. We're told at the outset that 9 million students spell their way through local and regional competitions every year, hoping to claim one of the 249 spots in the national tournament and possibly win a hefty cash prize.
Director Jeffrey Blitz and his team followed eight students as they crammed for battle. Spellbound focuses on spellers who fared well in previous years and made some wildly lucky picks. The film wisely underplays the pre-qualifying competitions leading up to the national tournament, and instead cuts to the kids' families, which proves to be the documentary's most moving -- and heartbreaking -- footage.
Traveling from Perryton, Texas, to New Haven, Conn., Spellbound portrays a divided and diverse America, less of a melting pot than a box of rival crayons. Angela, subject of the first vignette, comes from Mexican immigrant parents who barely speak English. The girl is largely self-motivated to study spelling, and views her triumph at regionals almost as a testimony to her father's dream of upward mobility.
By contrast, Neil, one of the three featured subjects of Indian descent, stares blankly while his slave-driving father whips him into shape. The patriarch has actually paid to have prayers chanted for the boy's victory and has pledged to pay for meals for 5,000 starving families in India if Neil wins the competition.
Other kids include oafish Ted from Rolla, Mo., who has the look of a pipe-bomber in training, and shrill Harry from New Jersey, who seriously needs of a double shot of Ritalin. Essentially all these children are misfits in one way or another, and Spellbound suggests that the spelling bee provides a vehicle for acceptance.
Perhaps the most poignant competitor is Ashley, an inner-city Washington, D.C., youth whose mother bitches about the economy but shows zero ambition for herself. Instead, like many parents in the film, she pins her hopes on her child.
Once the focus shifts to the competition itself, the film's tension reaches white-knuckle status. The kids stammer over insanely arcane words ("cephalalgia," "dysphasia"), spouting vowels on cue like Pavlov's puppies. Like an Agatha Christie novel, the second act knocks down all the dominoes set up in the first, until one of Blitz's protagonists is left to compete for top honors.
The thought of watching a 97-minute documentary on spelling bees probably sounds as appealing as an appendectomy, and Spellbound would fail if it had such a narrow focus. Instead, as the tournament unfolds, the documentary spells out its broader themes, and Spellbound becomes both a portrait of pre-teen angst and an indictment of American ambition.
Ultimately, Spellbound proves to be a fable of our social structure in action and suggests that even such a mundane phenomenon as spelling bees can speak volumes about the American caste system. Spellbound puts the American Dream to the test when those clinging to the lowest rung of the ladder can somehow climb to national acclaim (and cash prizes), thanks to an archaic pageant of trivial knowledge retention.
Spellbound's good-natured sketch of vying Poindexters indicates that we are all products of our environments. But in an age when even cell phones have spell-check systems, there's something vaguely sad and empty about the whole affair.
How do you spell "pathetic"?