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Spellbound (2002)

  Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg, Ashley White
Links: Spellbound on the IMDb, Official site, Buy on DVD
Genre: Documentary

This movie gets: 8.33 (3 ratings) Ranking: Ranked equal 48th of 187 movies (2 ratings minimum; see full chart)

Spellbound (2002) is also mentioned in pearly's review of Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating (2004).

"T double-E double-R double-R double-I double-F double-I double-C, C, C." - a review by mino

I'm sure most people, when they saw the trailers for Spellbound, said ‘What the hell? A documentary about spelling bee championships? Do such things even exist?’. Well, not me. Nosiree Bob. I'm not one of those people who has a great many uncanny knacks, but the single most uncanny of my many otherwise-perfectly-canny collection of knacks is that if there's a totally ridiculous ‘competitive event’ — like, say, a spelling bee final, a rock eisteddfod, a beauty pageant, or some such — on the TV at some ungoldy hour like 1PM on a Sunday, you can guarantee that that will be the one time I'll turn on the TV at 1 PM on a Sunday, just in time to catch it. It doesn't come in handy quite as often as, say, being able to predict the next week's lottery numbers but, hey, there are worse knacks to have.

Anyway, as a result, I'm more than familiar with the concept of televised spelling bee finals, and this documentary had been on my ‘must-see list’ for some time. There's nothing that generates excitement and tension quite like a spelling bee final (OK, OK, there are about eighty thousand things — shut up), and the idea of getting a ‘behind-the-scenes’ insight into the cutthroat world of spelling had me intrigued.

Rightly so, it turns out. Spellbound is one of the more fascinating and entertaining documentaries I've seen in a long time. This is partially because it serves as an object lesson in the right way to make a documentary — pick the right subjects, start filming, and get the hell out of the way. Too many doco makers try and be too clever by half, imprinting themselves on the documentary in a way that's supposed to be engaging but usually ends up just making you annoyed at them (yes, Michael Moore, I'm looking at you). In Spellbound, filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz has picked some great kids to follow — apparently, just as much through good fortune as good management — and tracked their progress through to the national finals, keeping well out of the way and letting the ‘natural stories’ bubble their way to the surface. And when the subjects include the hilarious and engaging Harry Altman, for example, and the stories include overbearing parents, racial and social prejudice, and people trying to buy off God with huge prayer meetings and promised charitable donations, then that's more than enough to make a great movie on its own.

A good documentary requires a good eye for a story, sharp editing, and a willingness to keep the subjects as the focus without getting distracted — all things that Blitz provides in spades here. Spellbound is a great film — just watch the kids, be fascinated by their stories, pick a favourite, and cheer 'em home in the big final!

mino gives this movie 8 out of 10.
Review created on Wed 10 Aug 2005

"Puts a smile on your dial" - a review by pearly

Spellbound is this year's (slightly more grown-up) To Be and to Have (2002) (okay, so technically, they were both released in the same year, but it took ages for this one to makes its way down to sunny Melbourne-town). A heart-warming tale of eight kiddies and their attempt to win the USA's National Spelling Bee (don't visit the link if you haven't seen the movie yet, cos at time of posting, it has a photo of the winner on the home page).

There's the studious ones, the pushed-by-their-parents ones, the I-doubt-I'll-win ones, and the one(s) with the weird-sounding laugh. And all of them know how to spell words that mere mortals have never even heard before. The Spellbound documentarians take the audience behind the scenes to show some typical days for their eight featured spellers in the lead-up to the national competition. And then it's down to business, with the bee itself sorting the misspelers from the geniuses.

It's this sort of documentary which proves that the best stories come from real life. From the young boy who seems like he should be more interested in his Star Wars (1977) toys than in learning to spell long words, to the woman who insists on repeatedly using the word "be", each time noting that she's actually spelling it "bee", you couldn't write characters like this (well, maybe you could write the bee lady, but she wouldn't be as funny as the real thing).

Some of the lengths that these spellers and their families go to are mind-blowing - like the family of Neil Kadakia, who pledge $5000 to be given to hungry children in India if Neil wins. Other families spend their evenings going through dictionaries with their child, and similar activities. It's impossible not to enjoy this documentary; it draws you into its world and keeps you interested and secretly rooting for your favourite up until the last minute. When the first of the featured spellers is eliminated from the bee, you can feel the family's pain, and you understand a little of why they're participating in the event.

Spellbound is a wonderful example of how natural a documentary can be - it doesn't all have to be about staging situations for effect (as many popular docos, such as Bowling for Columbine (2002), would indicate). It's bound to have you grinning from ear-to-ear throughout.

P.S. yes, Rob Sitch, if you're reading this, you can commentate anything. Now shut the hell up about it.

pearly gives this movie 8 out of 10.
Review created on Mon 8 Dec 2003

"Spellbinding" - a review by andy-j

Spellbound is a documentary movie that delves into the lives of eight children/teenagers on their quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee, held each year in Washington DC. We are introduced to the characters one by one, as well as their parents, their siblings, their teachers and their friends. Each of them tells us how they came to make it to the final 249 contestants, how they are feeling about the competition and the chances of winning, their study techniques, and anything else they feel like sharing (which, in the case of Harry Altman, is absolutely everything).

Once we have met all eight kids - Harry, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg and Ashley White - we sit in on the final 249 and view highlights of the competition, watching as, one by one, the contestants are eliminated until a final winner is revealed.

Spellbound is great. It has a lot of things going for it. Firstly, the subject matter of a national spelling bee, while occasionally a little dry, is generally riveting. I felt contestants' stress as they sat up on the stage, anxiously awaiting their turn at the microphone, hoping for a word that they could handle. Better you than me kids! The competition is interspersed with little pieces on the history of the contest, the judges, the guy who says the words to the competitors, which helps prevent this from being straight "highlight" footage (which, I suspect, would become a little boring). We also get to see the backstage reactions of the kids as they drop out.

Learning a bit about the background of our eight contestants gives us an idea of what drives them, and what the competition means to them. This is where the real interest of this film lies. It is also fascinating to see the level of support and encouragement the children get from their parents and those around them, and the effect that this has on them. For example, Angela's parents make it clear to her how proud she has made them just by getting into the finals. As a result, Angela, while feeling the stress of the competition, tells us she has dreams of herself winning the competition. While many of the other children talk of how they imagine themselves getting a word they've never heard of and bombing, Angela takes a very positive approach. Neil's family, meanwhile, is so determined for him to win, that they pay 1000 people to pray for him. His father drills him for hours each day with words... you wonder why Neil's dad wants him to win so badly. Is it for Neil's sake? Or is it for his own personal reasons? In any case, poor Neil feels the pressure. When he gets a word he doesn't know, he almost falls to pieces and can barely get the words out to ask the judges to repeat it.

The children themselves are great fun to watch and are very relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera. Their personalities shine through. Harry, in particular, is a scream. The filmmakers have done a tremendous job with this aspect of Spellbound. We really get to see who these kids are, which is vital as the film is very much about delving into their motivations. Additionally, Spellbound never feels like it's trying to make a point - it's completely open to the viewers interpretation.

I'd question the rewatchability of it a little, but all in all this is brilliant stuff.

andy-j gives this movie 9 out of 10.
Review created on Fri 14 Nov 2003

Movie review statistics

Number of reviews: 3
Average rating: 8.33
Lowest rating: 8 (by mino, pearly)
Highest rating: 9 (by andy-j)
Rating Percentage

Reader comments

  1. It was great:) It really made me laugh and bring the fun out of me....

    Rating given: 10

    A comment from HavenL on Mon 15 Aug 2005 01:44 #

  2. This was a great movie, we wached it for a school project, and it rely made us all laugh! it was great.
    i particularly like Ted. Hes cool!

    Rating given: 10

    A comment from alice on Fri 27 Oct 2006 15:35 #

Those who have commented give this movie: 10.00 (2 ratings)

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