Director Jeff Blitz suffers from an extreme stutter, making it very difficult for him to express himself verbally without tripping over his words. It should come as no surprise then that the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee – a competition for über-geeky kids to spell out complex multi-syllabic words under the glare of thousands of doting parents and national television – should hold a certain fascination for him.
His debut, Spellbound, is a documentary that focuses on this competition. Each year over 200 kids vie to be the best young speller in America – a feat that involves memorising over half a million words, including seldom-used stumpers like ‘cephalagia’ or ‘opsimath’, and going up against equally gifted peers. The film follows eight youngsters, each sharing an uncanny ability to absorb vast amounts of information – whether it be the bowl cut sporting spod, Harry, or the misunderstood teenage genius, Ted.
Blitz views the spelling bee as an example of the American Dream. To some extent this is true – any one can enter, provided they have the talent and put in the hard work, and the prizes include a university scholarship, which may afford the competitors an opportunity they may not have otherwise had. As if to exemplify this point further the eight spellers on whom the film focusses are diverse – from different economic strata, ethnic backgrounds, family structures and areas of the country – and provide a fascinating cross-section of American society today.
Take Angela Arenivar, from a small farm town in Texas, for example. Her parents entered the US illegally from Mexico over 30 years ago and still don’t speak a word of English. They talk to the camera, glowing with pride and are astounded at the amount of time their daughter spends at the books. Meanwhile, Neil Kadakia, an East Indian boy living on the plush San Clemente coast, is continually tested by his over-bearing father – who forces him to study the former championships and computer programmes and have sessions with multiple spelling coaches. His grandfather even pays hundreds of Indian Hindus to pray for Neil on the morning of the finals.
Not only is Blitz’s study of these often-eccentric teenagers both humorous and imbued with obvious affection, but the actual championship makes for disturbingly compelling viewing. Obviously, there’s the fact that we’re rooting for the film’s subjects amid tough competition, but there’s also something we can all sympathise with about the pressure of being tested in front of the class. Add a national television audience and the tension becomes unbearable.
The main appeal of the dog show ‘mockumentary’ Best In Show (2000) was its examination of the characters’ obsessions and how, within their own universe, they are important figures. Spellbound has the same charm, but is all the more fun because the characters are real people. One of the highlights is a sequence in which a former champion – a milk-bottle bespectacled nerd who is no doubt openly bullied by all in the normal school environment – looks up from signing autographs to offer his secrets to spelling success: "Trust in Jesus, honour your parents and study." Simply brilliant stuff.