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Spellbound

Director: Jeff Blitz

U.S.A.| 2002. Colour. Dolby stereo SR. 95 mins.


This incisive, funny and heart-stoppingly suspenseful documentary concerns a peculiarly American phenomenon, the National Spelling Bee. Every year 14-year-old high school students from all over the US compete in regional heats, the best of them going on to the national finals in Washington. Director Jeff Blitz’s film focuses on eight young contestants from a wide variety of regional, class and racial backgrounds, revealing their individual personalities, their unique study methods, and the inner dynamics of their familial relationships. But whether they come from the deprived inner city projects of Washington, the privileged suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut, or a run-down trailer home in rural Missouri, the challenge is the same. On stage, under intense pressure, they must spell arcane words such as ‘cephalalgia’ (‘a pain in the head’).
Once the competition begins in earnest, it is impossible not to sympathise with and root for all the spellers. We see the richer kids under pressure from their pushy, aspirational parents, and the poorer ones struggling to establish their identity through a mastery of the American language. Neil’s Indian-born father devises an intensive system of study involving computer programs, private coaching and the rote-learning of thousands of words. After twenty years in Texas, Angela’s immigrant Mexican father still doesn’t speak English; but she has devised her own ad hoc study methods and is determined to win.
This is not a film about spelling, it is a film about family, class, race and the American Dream. All of this feeds into the palm-sweating, edge-of-your seat tension generated by the nationally televised sudden-death final, which crystallises the family’s hopes and the spellers’ will to succeed and need to belong. The most unexpected, enjoyable and profoundly humane film of the year.

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