Of all of the films that have come out in 2002, I think it’s probably safe to say that Spellbound has one of the unlikeliest and most laughable premises: it just follows 8 students and their families as they prepare for the U.S. National Spelling Bee championship. Yes, you read that last bit correctly — the U.S. National Spelling Bee. But as the film progresses, that odd premise plays out in some very startling and amazing ways.
We see the children train, pushing themselves to limits that seem ludicrous. We see their families and communities rally around them, in ways that are both touching and hilarious. And we see them react under tremendous pressure as the Spelling Bee commences, with the camera zooming in tight on their faces while they struggle to figure out and decipher words so bizarre they hardly seem real.
To be perfectly honest, I’m hardpressed to think of a film I’ve seen in recent months with as much heart, drama, and glorious humanity as Spellbound. It’s easily one of the best and most rewarding films I’ve seen so far this year, and its “ordinariness” really puts the glitz and glam of Hollywood in perspective (and the view isn’t terribly flattering).
During Spellbound’s first half, we’re introduced to the 8 children and their families. They’re all from different races, creeds, backgrounds, and social standings. In a sense, you truly get to see America for the melting pot that it is. Some kids come from privileged families, whereas some of them just barely seem to be scraping by. Some families have their roots here, while others have come to the U.S. (some illegally) seeking the promise of a better future. All of the children’s stories are unique and memorable, and it’s safe to say that every viewer will have their favorites.
There’s Angela, whose parents crossed the border into Texas illegally, hoping to provide a better life for their children. In one especially moving segment, and one that should shut anyone up who has nasty things to say about illegal aliens, the film focuses on her father. Although he’s lived in the U.S. for 20 years, he still doesn’t speak any English. But he’s worked his whole life so that his daughter can have a good future, and the pride he feels in her accomplishment radiates from the screen. Personally, I found the immigrants’ stories to be some of the most affecting, giving me some newfound appreciation for my own country and the opportunities that it, and no other, offers.
Ashley, a young black girl from Washington D.C., was another one that really got to me. She travels the subway alone to a school that gets closed due to bomb threats, and yet her positive, “can do” spirit is one of the film’s brightest spots. However, the crowd favorite was a motormouth named Harry, whose funny robot voices, lame jokes, and extreme facial expressions never failed to put the audience in stitches.
I just want to take a moment and talk about how hilarious this movie is. And it’s the best kind of humor too, the kind that is rooted in real life as opposed to the cheap facsimille we all too often accept from Hollywood.
Families squeal with delight and beam with pride when their kids succeed, and you can’t help but laugh along with them. Communities rally around their prodigies in unexpected ways, such as the Hooters that “congradulated” Angela. There are revelations from past Spelling Bee champions, like the one who admits that winning the championship didn’t do much to help his sex life. In one hilarious interview, the filmmakers talk with 3 kids who had lost to one of the film’s 8 (a calm, studious girl named Nupur), and who give their critical assessment of her abilities. Scenes like these are sprinkled liberally throughout the movie, and each one elicited peals of good-natured, heartfelt laughter from the audience.
Other scenes, while sometimes humorous, often just boggle the mind. Especially those scenes of the kids training for the Bee. You might think that athletes are the only ones who train hard in school, but these kids would shame even the toughest jock. Spending up to 8 hours a day, year-round, they pore over dictionaries, spelling guides, and computer software, memorizing thousands of words like “encephalitis,” “logorrhea,” and “cephalalgia.” Some have language professors tutor them in French, Spanish, and German so they’ll better understand words whose origins lie in those languages. Others create clever mnemonic devices to help them remember thousands upon thousands of words.
During such scenes, it would’ve been easy for the filmmakers to poke fun at their subjects’ geekiness, or perhaps even criticize some of the parents who push their children so hard. But much to their credit, the filmmakers play it straight. They have no agenda. Nothing is scripted or forced; the camera’s take on everyone is fair and square. These are real people… delightfully, absurdly, comedically, tragically, vividly real people, and the filmmakers honor and respect each and every one of them.
The film’s mood takes a sudden shift in the second half, as the kids arrive in Washington D.C. and begin their final preparations for the national championship. The atmosphere becomes tenser, and in interviews, we really start seeing the stress these kids are under, stress from their families, their schools, their communities, and themselves.
By the time they’re making their way across the Championship’s stage to that microphone, you’re biting your fingers, silently spelling the words with them (if you can, that is), and praying that when they’re done, you don’t hear that bell signifying a mistake. During these scenes, the camera zooms up close on the children’s faces, perfectly capturing the gamut of human emotions: fear when they get an especially hard word; frustration and puzzlement as they try to figure it out; and relief and elation when they’re successful… or disappointment if they’re not.
When a kid pulls off an especially difficult word, one that had them shaking and nearly in tears, their joy is so profound that you want to jump out of your seat and cheer along with them. And when they fail, you want to walk up, put your arm around them, and give them a word or two of encouragement.
In the film’s final minutes, the 249 competitors are whittled away one by one and the tension becomes as thick as any Hitchcock thriller. One thing that amazed me was how the kids rally around each other. Despite the competition, there is no mean-spiritedness. (Take that, Survivor!) When a kid successfully spells an impossible word, they are greeted by handshakes and congratulations. During the breaks, we see them hang out and laugh like “normal” kids, though the topics of conversation are probably a bit more academic. As one mother remarks, this is the one place where these kids, whose intelligence and ability often alienates them from their peers back home, can finally fit in and be accepted. Having been an awkward geek as a kid who experienced his fair share of shunning, that really resonated with me.
I know that some people will ignore this film because it’s a documentary, or because the premise sounds far too silly. But Spellbound is an incredible film. It takes as mundane a topic as you can think of, centered around a subject most of us probably hated as kids, and ends up being an incredible slice of human drama. These are real kids, not actors, and their “realness” makes for a very humbling experience. I hope that every “reality TV” executive gets to watch Spellbound. If confronted by the subtlety and drama of true reality, as opposed to their pale imitations, they’d probably be shamed into retiring.
With Spellbound, you honestly get a glimpse of the best that humanity has to offer, in all of its touching and absurd glory. In these days, where hate, suspicion, and doubt are in such large supply, that’s a very, very rare and valuable thing.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.