A delightfully warm and engaging work, Spellbound was part cause and part beneficiary of the upswing of interest in theatrical documentary in the UK in 2003.
Without voice-over or any obvious authorial agenda, (Bowling for Columbine (2002) it isn’t), it shows us eight children preparing for or reflecting on the experience of the annual Scripps Howard US National Spelling Bee, a nationwide competition to find the best young speller in America. We are introduced to the spellers one by one, and gradually director Jeffrey Blitz builds up a canvas of contemporary America.
Here are the wealthy immigrant Indian families, the urban black family and the slightly diffident WASPs. There are the Mexican migrants who never even learned to speak English yet find themselves at the Washington finals supporting their child (Angela), one of the best spellers in America. There’s the intense outsider who is too clever for his own school (‘There’s a kid in my class, all he talks about is trucks’); the easy-going suburban working class family who remind their child (April) of Edith and Archie Bunker; and Harry, the geeky poster child for the film who appears worryingly close to being attention deficient (‘I guess you could call me talkative, not really, I mean, I can’t, I can’t … yes, sort of’).
We meet each in turn before the second half of the film follows their progress at the Nationals. In truth, the format becomes a little repetitious and the film quits while it’s ahead, coming in at an economical 96 minutes. The picture that emerges is one of a largely benevolent experience, gifted children lovingly supported by proud, if slightly bemused, parents. Those who regard Spellbound as an implicit criticism of the deep-seated competitiveness of American society must have seized upon the vignette of Neil, schooled in rapid-fire spelling by his driven father (‘we were doing between 5000 and 7000 words a day’), a high achieving Indian doctor who takes pride in his rise in America. Indeed, Neil seems to be having rather less fun than his peers, but there is no suggestion that he is in any way an unwilling participant in his parents’ ambitio! n; nor do the film-makers appear to take his father’s pro-American sentiments – ‘There is no way you can fail in America … if you work hard’ – at anything other than face value.
Ultimately, Spellbound is a formally conservative work that is nonetheless satisfying for that. These days ‘documentary’ is something of a battlefield of a term, Michael Moore at one extreme, Claude Lanzmann at the other. Spellbound, entirely appropriately, sits right in the middle, eschewing the egotism of the former and the formal rigour of the latter.
The DVD includes some fun extras, including deleted scenes featuring spellers not included in the finished film, a ‘where are they now’ gallery and a film-maker commentary.