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The National Spelling Bee is a uniquely American
phenomenon and a look at the teen-aged competitors and their families provides a
correspondingly unique perspective on diverse American values. Jeffrey Blitz' documentary follows eight of these bright kids
through the process of preparation and at the event itself. The kids come from varied
backgrounds--from poor to upper-middle class, from urban to suburban to rural, and from
varied ethnic and regional backgrounds. They're a likeable bunch and elicit varying
degrees of sympathy, but the film ends up telling at least as much about their parents as
it does about the kids.
Angela's father was an illegal immigrant who now works as a foreman on
a cattle ranch in the Southwest. He's never learned English, but his kids speak it as a
native tongue; they are fully assimilated and are the realization of his dreams in coming
to the U.S. They are getting a decent education and have better prospects for the
future than would have been possible in Mexico. Angela's participation in the Spelling Bee
doesn't seem to resonate much for here father; his kids have already fulfilled his
ambitions for them. Angela survives a regional competition (words like
"valetudinarian" and "crocodilian") to go on to Washington for the
Ted is from rural Missouri, a smart, low-keyed young man who says,
"It's hard to make friends when no one understands what all you can do." His
father is a teacher who thinks the competition is healthy for his son because it gives him
a chance to meet other bright kids. Ted's parents have a balanced attitude, encouraging
him in the competition, but with a realistic take on his chances.
In contrast, Neil is from an upwardly mobile Orange County family. His
entrepreneur father waves the flag for the capitalist system, himself embodying its
rampant materialism and a fiercely competitive ethic. He not only spends some of his own
time drilling words with Neil, but he's hired a tutor to coach the boy as well. They've
set a goal of going through 8,000 words a day to prepare Neil for Washington. It seems
like a crisis mode and, indeed, his mother likens it to fighting a war.
The survivors of the regional bees converge on Washington, DC where the
tension is palpable, observed in squinting eyes, heavy breathing, faces twisted up in deep
concentration. Round after round, kids are eliminated for not being able to spell words
some of us have never even heard before, no less understood and spelled. And, of
course, there can be only one winner--all the other competitors must deal gamely with
coming out less than number one.
American parents have been known to go overboard with their kids on
occasion, especially in sports such as soccer and Little League baseball where fiercely
competitive fathers have been known to come to blows. It's hard to imagine that the
inordinate degree of pressure put on some of these kids won't in some cases have damaging
psychological results, a sad price for kids to pay for their parents' ambitions.
But the Spelling Bee does give brainy youngsters a chance to shine and
it brings out the best in some. One's heart goes out to Ashley, a soft-spoken Black girl
from Washington. Her loving mother's ambition for her daughter is conditioned by the
limited expectations of the ghetto--that she finish the 12th grade with honors.
Ashley--articulate and thoughtful--has learned to see life as a series of trials and
tribulations to be overcome. What happens to her at the competition and the plucky way she
responds to it leave an indelible impression. Spellbound demonstrates plainly
that there's no level playing field out there, but, even so, the system continues to
provide hope, however elusive, for upward mobility.
- Arthur Lazere