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 cr?me
de la cr?me 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
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
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 clich? 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."