|<< Problem Solving Skills: On! | Clack Attack >>|
Note: I have a bevy of movie reviews to get to this week, having put off nearly half a dozen of them. But although this is the one I saw most recently, it is also the one I'm going to cover first, because (a) it ain't gonna be in theaters long, and (b) you should see it while it is.
As anyone who has read more than four paragraphs of this website knows, I'm not much of a speller. But it's not my fault. I was handicapped as a child by having a sister who was a whiz at spelling, which meant that I would just demand that she spell giraff for me rather looking it up in the dictionary myself. (I swear to god that I didn't just intentionally misspell "giraffe" for comedic effect.) Cursed with a grammatical crutch, I never learned to spell stuff on my own.
Consequentially, I consider spelling, like all things that I can't do well (playing softball, making home repairs, performing neurosurgery, etc.), to be Not Terribly Important. I mean sure, it's great if you can pound out "cacophony" on the first try, but, if not, that's why George Washington Carver invented SpellCheck, right? A corollary of this is that I am fascinated by those who, on the contrary, find spelling Terribly Important Indeed. This was true of Word Freak, the book profiling professional Scrabble Players, and even more so in the documentary Spellbound, a film that follows eight kids and their parents as they train and compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee.
In the first half we get to meet the contestants, see glimpses of their family and personal lives (which seem to revolve around flash cards with "sarcophagus" written on them), and watch them trounce their peers in the regional semi-finals. Like the Scrabble junkies, these kids are largely uninterested in what the words mean, except insofar as that knowledge helps them get the right letters in the right order. But unlike the characters in Word Freak, who all seemed to be of a similar mold (i.e., social maladapted borderline-savants), the octet of kids in Spellbound run the gamut from the totally geeky to the, well, slightly-less-but-still-pretty-darned-geeky. They come from a wide variety of geographical regions, communities, and families. Each claims that winning isn't important and all are lying on this point, but some clearly have more emotional investment in the outcome than others.
Almost stealing the limelight are the parents, each of which supports his child in a different way and to a different degree of intensity. Some exhort their child to excel, while others constantly remind the speller (and, by extension, themselves) that success in a spelling bee is ultimately unimportant in the largest scheme of things.
The ample time lavished on exposition pays off in the second half of Spellbound, which covers the highlights of the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Now that the audience relates to the eight (of 248!) kids as people rather than as freakish spelling machines, watching them compete is as riveting and stressful as anything you are likely to see a cinema this year. On more than one occasion I had to look away from the screen in agony when one of my favorites was given a word like "cephalagia," and people in the theater where openly cheering when one of the kids narrowly avoided elimination. Plus: boys that talk like Musical Robots! All of which makes for one of the most inspirational, gut-wrenching, and exciting films I've seen in a spell.
Attention Seattleites: Spellbound is currently playing at the Guild 45.Posted on July 09, 2003 to Movies