A sublime documentary about spelling bees.

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April 30 2003 6:27 PM

Killer Bee

The nation's best spellers square off in Spellbound.

Spelling as a means to affirm one's American-ness
Spelling as a means to affirm one's American-ness

On its most basic level, Jeff Blitz's Spellbound (ThinkFilm) documents the 1999 nerd Olympics: 9 million nationwide spelling-bee contestants reduced to 249 finalists reduced to one winner. But the contest turns out to have a deeper resonance than if the sport had been merely physical: Among other things, mastery of the English language becomes a means of affirming one's American-ness. The movie is chiefly a portrait of eight aspiring contestants and their families. The first half introduces them singly in their hometowns: five girls and three boys from all over the country, from different races and economic classes—Angela, Nupur, Ted, Emily, Ashley, Neil, April, and wacky Harry. The second half is the bee itself, in Washington, D.C., where Blitz shows them knocked off, one by one, as in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None—a favorite of the director's. But these kids aren't expendable drawing-room-mystery victims: It's devastating to watch their stabs of grief when they misspell obscure words (care for a hellebore, anyone?) and the bell goes ding! The movie becomes a nail-biter, the audience hanging on every letter. Who could have anticipated that a spelling competition would yield such a heartbreaking thriller?

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You know that the director is onto something with the very first girl, Angela, whose father, Ubaldo, a ranch manager in Texas, speaks no English: The family crossed illegally into the United States from Mexico before she was born. Blitz doesn't sit the father down, the way he will the other parents, as if sensing that a straightforward interview would diminish the man. His uninsistent camera shows Ubaldo traipsing around the ranch, his domain, while his older son explains the risk his dad took so that his children would have an education. Fueled by little more than her parents' dreams, the gangly, giddy Angela is the best speller in her part of Texas—and the family will go to Washington for the first time in their lives.

You'll wonder how Blitz can top Angela, yet almost all these kids hook you on the same level. Nupur is the daughter of Indian immigrants—whose children, says her English teacher, have "a great work ethic." Then there's a cut to Nupur, sawing determinedly on her violin, serious beyond words. Blitz, who shot most of the movie himself on digital video, is a natural at framing these people in a way that captures their glorious individuality yet gives their lives a powerful social context. "You don't get second chances in India the way you do in America," says Nupur's father. And this is Nupur's second chance: The year before, she got knocked out of the nationals in the third round. This year, three local boys do their best to psych her out in the regional bee. But Nupur is unfazeable. The local Tampa, Fla. Hooters celebrates her regional win on its sign: "Congradu tions Nupur."

It's no wonder that the immigrant motif emerges so strongly in Spellbound: This melting-pot nation has a melting-pot language. English has roots in both German and Latin/French, with regular vocabulary infusions from sundry immigrant populations. Mastering its spelling requires both prodigious memorization and a grasp of each word's origins. Distress isn't limited to non-native speakers.

To select his subjects, Blitz and his co-producer, Sean Welch, reportedly combed lists of returning regional champions and picked the brains of countless officials and coaches. The order of the stories is significant, with the worldly, confident Nupur followed by Ted, a rural Missouri kid whose sense of isolation is palpable. "There are a couple of smart kids in my class but not many," he says—not sounding snotty, just lonely. Then it's on to the well-to-do Emily, who has a nice Connecticut home, an au pair, and a warmly supportive community; and Ashley, an African-American girl in southeast Washington, D.C., who has little community support or recognition. Ashley's mother sits smoking at her kitchen table, listing the obstacles her daughter has had to overcome, bitter over the lack of attention: The winner of the Washington metro bee, Ashley doesn't even have a trophy. But the girl herself—dressed in immaculate white—is radiant. "I'm a prayer warrior," she says. "I just can't stop praying. I rise above all my problems." Trying to convince herself as much as Blitz's camera, Ashley makes you want to cry.

In wealthy San Clemente, Calif., we don't see much of Neil—the focus is on his Indian father, whose children are vessels for his seemingly boundless ambition. He loves America: "If you work hard, you'll make it," he avers, and he has Neil working superhumanly hard, drilling him endlessly and hiring tutors in French, Spanish, and German to supplement his school's program in Latin. When we finally meet Neil, the kid seems barely conscious—diffident, almost robotic in his obedience. You know he'd rather be shooting hoops. Blitz follows the most high-pressure dad with a sweetly pessimistic one. In Ambler, Pa., cute, doleful April studies by herself from a battered unabridged dictionary while her father, owner of the rundown "Easy Street Pub," describes himself as "not a real success story," and her chipper mother says, "I can't even pronounce these words. It's rather sad." Surveying her own chances, April confesses, "I don't expect to get past the first round tomorrow." (Of course, I was rooting for April.) The final subject is New Jersey's irrepressible Harry—a twitchy, compulsively prattling uber-geek who tugs at the microphone ("Is this thing edible?") and nearly brings the national bee to a halt.

It's understandable that we root for the less privileged kids because they've made their own way in the world—but I wish that Blitz didn't show us Connecticut Emily trotting on a horse to reinforce the point that she has money. That said, Emily ultimately comes off as a nice girl with a healthy attitude. It's a measure of Blitz's humanism that even Neil's overbearing father has moments of grace. You can't hate him when you see him rocking in prayer for his son to succeed.

Spellbound is a gorgeous weave. When the contestants take the stage, the editor, Yana Gorskaya, cuts fluidly from the kids to their parents—often doubled over with anxiety—and back to the harrowing recitation of letters. Daniel Hulsizer's simple, plinking chords remind you of "Chopsticks" or a child's building blocks: It's the perfect music for this innocent—yet unnerving—milieu. The real-time tension is so strong that it's a relief when the movie takes a breather to meet contest officials and past spelling champions, among them the very first winner, from 1925. They remember their own sense of monklike isolation while they studied, the bond they felt to other social misfits when they arrived at the national finals, and their Olympian pride in victory.

Since seeing Spellbound, I've had many conversations with friends and colleagues about their spelling bee experiences. In the early '70s, I was in the last little group of spellers at my local Connecticut bee but got nailed—symbolically, it has been suggested—by the word "responsibility." My wife, only a decade before she'd embark on thousands of hours of therapy, flamed out on the word "psychiatrist." In Spellbound, Emily hates the word that knocked her out of the '98 bee and says that before it's all over, "I'm probably gonna hate one more word." The brother of a contestant who spells "distractible" with an "a" instead of an "i" insists, "I still think he spelled it right."

There is astonishing skill in Spellbound, but there are also accidents that seem blessed. It's almost like a novel when poor Ashley, the prayer warrior, freezes in terror on hearing the word "ecclesiastical," and when the Indian-American Neil, his head overstuffed with Latin, French, Spanish, and German, registers nothing but bewilderment when asked to spell "Darjeeling." The winner finishes with "logorrhea," which must be someone at the bee's idea of a grand joke. It sounds corny, but I had a hard time seeing any of these kids as losers—and a harder time figuring out how this deeply generous American documentary could have lost the Academy Award to Bowling for Columbine. Is it fair to ask whether most of the voters saw Spellbound? Or would that be irresponseble?

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.