Spellbound

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 finals.

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

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.