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With: Angela Arenivar, Nupur Lala, Ted Brigham, Emily Stagg, Ashley White, Neil Kadakia, April DeGideo, Harry Altman
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 97
Date: 03/14/2002

Spellbound (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Letter Go-Getters

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For the rest of his/her life, one special young person will have to remember the word "logorrhea" and be able to spell it on command.

The reason is because that it's the final word, the winning word, in that contest of contests, the National Spelling Bee.

Directed by Jeffrey Blitz, the new Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound follows eight young contenders as they correctly spell their way up through the semi-finals, competing against 249 for the title of Best Speller in America.

Blitz pulled a kind of Hoop Dreams here, as he followed some two dozen different spellers -- shooting about 160 hours of footage -- in the hopes that one of them would go all the way.

All eight kids are smart and because smart people are minorities in America, many of them are outcasts. April spends her summer vacation studying, Neil endures military-like word training rituals from his father and Harry is a happy-go-lucky weirdo spaz.

Ted comes from a small town in Missouri where his large size -- not his brain -- helps him to participate in sports and get along with others. And Ashley, who lives in Washington DC, is a bright African-American girl who does not seem to fit in with her family or her schoolmates.

Emily is an upper-glass girl from New Haven, Connecticut, Texan Angela comes from immigrant parents who don't speak English, while Nupur -- another child of Indian descent -- faces nearly the same kind of strict parental regimen that Neil does.

It's a fascinating cross-section not only of race and class, but also of small towns and large towns, the outcasts and the accepted.

Despite this politically correct mix, all color, shape, size and background disappears when the children get to the bee itself. The film becomes a nailbiter in the finest tradition; the children grind out suspense like a group of pint-sized, big-brained Rockys and Karate Kids, fighting through stress and exhaustion until the bitter end.

We Americans are not particularly fond of intelligence, but we love competition (our current president proves it). And the winner of the spelling bee wins more than a trophy; they win acceptance and recognition that lasts throughout their lives. Blitz interviews a few of the past winners, including Frank Neuhauser, the 88 year-old winner of the very first spelling bee. None of them build rockets or cure diseases, but they still hold a certain standing.

Blitz does a beautiful job of introducing us to the kids, giving us just enough to get to know them a bit, then cross-cutting between the competition itself and other interview footage to build the tension. We can feel the heat of the spotlight and the adrenaline rush of either knowing the word or not knowing it.

Some words are familiar ("Darjeeling," "odyssey") but most of them are for show-offs, though. Normal people never use these words, and that's where the thinking part comes in. Rather than memorizing words, contestants sometimes have to use their knowledge of word structure to make educated guesses. I love this film simply because it's a true rarity in cinema -- it celebrates thinking and knowledge.

By the way, the noun "logorrhea" is defined as: "pathologically excessive (and often incoherent) talking." You and I will probably never use this word, but one brave, cool-headed, smart person will remember it for the rest of his or her life.

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