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Movies: Spellbound

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


This was a great, great movie. Especially entertaining were the interviews with three little squealer boys who were out to beat Najur before the regional competition -- and her brother who made all of his comments while rocking back and forth in a Darth Maul blow-up chair. Nice slice-o-life...

Posted by: Emily on July 9, 2003 11:44 AM

Sounds like a winner. I'll try and see it. I'm currently about halfway through Word Freak, and OMFG, "social maladapted borderline-savants" sure seems about right. Geez, and my wife things I'm over the top with gaming...

Posted by: Windopaene on July 9, 2003 11:46 AM

This is not a great, great movie. It COULD have been, but the filmmakers really missed the boat-- if you've ever seen the National Spelling Bee on ESPN, the film offers very little additional insight. Which rather defeats the point of making a documentary about it in the first place. Additional comments at my blog, linked above.

Posted by: Peter Sarrett on July 9, 2003 11:48 AM

My personal favorites from the movie were the Texan teacher holding the giant stuffed bear so that its ass was indiscretely facing the camera during her interview, and the little dog in the "bee yourself" house in Pennsylvania that always seemed to be lolling around the bottom of the frame. HILARIOUS.

I also liked Georgie's lisp.

Posted by: Ariel on July 9, 2003 2:15 PM

I'm gonna have to agree with the Yeti on this one. In fact, both the readers of grogdog are sick and tired of me gushing about Spellbound, which I've been doing since it came to SF DocFest over a year ago. Now that you've reviewed it I can finally shut the hell up about it. By the way, another film at DocFest that year is also going to see limited release: "Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns". Highly recommended to fans of the Johns L and F.

Posted by: K on July 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Indeed. I'd recommend both "Spellbound" and "Gigantic" to anyone. (Yes, I'd even recommend "Gigantic" to non-fans of Johns L/F.) "Spellbound" in particular I'd put up there with "Gates of Heaven."

Posted by: Vidiot on July 10, 2003 7:34 AM

"Spellbound" was a meatball pitch at spelling bees in general, as pointed out above. If you want the top-shelf hard stuff, read Neil Steinberg's "Complete And Utter Failure" which features a longish chapter on the Bee (and all sorts of other great stuff). He also (unlike Spellbound) takes an in-depth look at the horrors of the "Comfort Room."

Posted by: Spellie Spelleroni on July 10, 2003 8:02 AM

"Bee Season" by Myla Goldberg is also a very good (fictional) account of a girl doing the spelling bee thing. Here in rural NH I am pretty sure Spellbound is not coming to a theatre near me. Netflix, save me!

Posted by: leen on July 10, 2003 8:28 AM

Great, isn't it? At the screening I attended there was more audible & visible audience reaction than I've seen in ages. I was gripping the armrests and spelling words under my breath with the same urgency that I'd tell the ample-chested blonde 'don't run up the stairs, you idiot!' in a stupid horror movie. [Okay, that's maybe not the best comparison.] Few movies - and even fewer documentaries - entertain to the point of exhaustion like this one.

I *can* spell "cacophony" on the first try, by the way... :)

Posted by: Ginger on July 10, 2003 10:30 AM

See, now, I'm of a different mind when it comes to ample-chested blondes running up the stairs in movies.

Posted by: Matthew on July 10, 2003 10:34 AM

"Bee Season", while lovely, has nothing to do with how people really prepare for spelling bees. Or at least how successful people do.

It is a fascinating and somewhat disturbing book.

Posted by: whatish on July 10, 2003 10:59 AM

"Bee Season" had one of the most disturbing point-of-view switches I've ever read. It blew the credibility for me and made me want to throw the thing against the wall. But the language was gorgeous.

Posted by: Laurie on July 10, 2003 1:12 PM

I'd have to say that my favorite part is when the old people in the beginning are talking about Mexicans, hilarious.

Either that or Georgie sitting with his back to the camera while his parents say everything that his preacher says three minutes later and that Georgie says 2 minutes after that. Simply eery. I think Georgie may have been the Anti-Christ.

Posted by: Ozrael on July 11, 2003 6:53 AM

yeah, i was watching it on ESPN(?) along with the last five years of the world series of texas holdem poker and some dart competition over the weekend. all i can say is :DARTS! anyone see hell house? it's about some christian haunted house in dallas.

Posted by: Anonymous on July 11, 2003 8:46 AM

Did you know that Salvador Dali did the dream sequence with Gregory Peck?

Oh, wait -- I'm talking about Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound...

Posted by: destiny on July 11, 2003 9:30 AM

Hmmm... I don't think it's showing in my town (Lubbock, aka the dustbowl of Texas). It sounds pretty interesting. I actually have a friend who competed in the National Spelling Bee, and it seemed like he couldn't do anything except study for it for about the 3 months leading up to the bee. The strange thing is that you expect for the contestants to be somewhat geeky, but my friend is one of the most popular guys in his grade.

Posted by: kadi on July 26, 2003 10:12 PM

Spellbound has just been screened in Australia as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. I think I can (ok, I just will) speak for all Melburnians and say that we loved it.

Posted by: mcb on August 8, 2003 12:34 AM

I've seen Spellbound three times now and each time it gets better and better. Can't wait for the DVD. If it comes out in time for Christmas that's my gift to everyone. What's great about it is that it is not really a movie about spelling. It is about so much bigger things. And it's funny as hell. People who haven't seen it must. It is my fav of the year (so far).

Posted by: TSB on August 23, 2003 9:52 PM