Spelling bees are not really a common occurence in Australia. I competed in a few spelling contests in my high school years at a Christian educational convention, but it was nothing like a hardcore American spelling bee.
Imagine a room full of 100 kids. One by one, they’re called to the microphone and have to spell a big word. Unlike baseball, where it’s three strikes and you’re out, or any other sport, if one letter – one letter – is missing, a bell rings, and the child is out of the contest. That’s it. Game over.
Thus, each word becomes a major hurdle to be grappled with. Each word is a matter of winning or losing.
What makes this contest so interesting as well is that the kids are all under 14, so they’re too young to pretend that they’re not disappointed. Every time they go up to spell, you see the incredible range of emotions – fear, trepidation, confidence. And then when they get it wrong – disappointment, devastation, puzzlement.
This, of course, was exactly what drew the filmmakers to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. Spellbound‘s premise is pretty simple. They tracked down eight kids who were likely to place in the National Spelling Bee and followed them in the lead-up to the contest. The kids are amazing, from a boy from California whose parents are Indian, and whose father makes him practise 6-7,000 words a day so that he can blitz the contests. Or the daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants, whose parents can’t even speak English. But she taught herself to spell big words.
The great thing about this being a documentary, rather than a film, is that because it’s eight real kids, you have definite favourites that you would like to see win by the time the National Contest rolls around. But, because it’s a documentary, rather than a film, and we’re watching eight real kids, there’s no guarantee that the one you’re gunning for is going to be the one that wins the contest. So we’re on the edge of our seat (at least the first time) as much as the kids themselves.
I’ve seen this twice now, once at the cinemas, and then again on DVD, and I must say that it does lose a bit the second time around, because the tension isn’t there to the same degree. But, nonetheless, this film proves easily why a well-made documentary can be as riveting as any Hollywood blockbuster.
4 1/2 out of 5.