By David Mumpower
July 28, 2003
L. O. G. O. R. R. H. E. A.
Dictionary.com defines logorrhea as an excessive use of words. Those of you watching ESPN on Friday, June 4th, 1999, might remember the significance of this particular word. One of the 249 National Spelling Bee finalists succeeded in offering the correct spelling above. With this feat, a 14-year-old student was crowned the best speller in the United States.
For those of us watching the proceedings, it was a fascinating couple of hours of television as we marveled at the knowledge possessed by these child prodigies. After a bit of water cooler discussion, Americans of course moved on to shiny new discussion topics. Once you have seen Spellbound, though, you will probably feel more than a slight twinge of guilt at this quick dismissal from your consciousness.
The documentary focuses on eight students from across the country, and the first half of the movie gives the viewer a bit of background history about each of them. This is a ploy to make certain we are all rooting for the kids when their name is called. The film even starts with one of them, Harry, trying to decide on the spelling of a particular word. The meaning of "announcement, especially in a church, of an intended marriage" has him puzzled, and the twitchy lad is stuck after four letters.
Before we the viewers know whether or not he accomplishes his spelling task, Spellbound cuts to the backgrounds of the individuals being tracked at the Nationals. There is Angela, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who work for a decrepit-looking man who blithely attempts to compliment her by describing her as an unusually hard worker for a Mexican. For her part, Angela has spent the body of the year practicing to improve her technique, never recognizing how amazing her skill is. After all, the woman’s parents don’t even speak the language yet she is the best student of spelling in her region. She proves this by outlasting a similarly brainy girl named Neelima in a 54 round epic battle of wills in order to reach the Nationals.
Other memorable students of the game are Ted, Harry, Emily and Nupur. Ted is a Rolla, Missouri small town kid who is clearly ostracized for his book learnin’. Ted’s older brother appears to be the founding member of the Missouri militia, so his parents have spent more time keeping him out of trouble than they have nurturing their son’s gift until recently. His nascent ability is a source of tremendous pride for them even if they don’t fully understand it. Harry is a poster child for sugar addiction, and his inability to slow down to the adult speed of conversation makes him the comedy relief of the movie though his savant-like spelling ability is impressive.
For her part, Emily has been to the Nationals three straight years, and has grown obsessed with winning. The words Emily has missed in previous outings are a scarlet string of letters she has burned into her psyche as a driving raison d’etre for the upcoming campaign. Nupur’s biggest feat is in whipping a trio of boys who are all interviewed on camera. They express a mix of bitterness and admiration for the talented speller who spiked them on her way to the tourney. As with Emily, each of them vividly recalls the word that sandbagged them out of competition, and it is through the eyes of these three boys that we understand just how impressive a speller Nupur is. To a larger degree, Spellbound is about the Neelimas and Trios of the competition. These are the ones who spend so much time studying but don’t make it to the Nationals, leaving the kids with no recourse but to root for those who beat them.
The stars of Spellbound, though, are Neil, Ashley, and April. Neil is an oddity in the field, as he plays sports, has hobbies and lives the life of a normal teen boy. His parents, on the other hand, live and breathe championship spelling. They have three different spelling trainers for the boy, and seem to consider his quest for first place nothing less than a family jihad. While Neil himself comes across as rather vanilla in the movie, his father is one of those scary types who you wouldn’t want to sit beside at a high school football game on the off chance Junior gets called for holding. Obsession comes naturally to the man, though, as Neil’s grandfather in India phones with the news that he has paid 1,000 people to pray for the boy. Also, if Neal wins, 5,000 needy families in India will be given food. No pressure, kid.
Ashley is an inner city girl from Washington, D.C. Her accomplishments fly in the face of her circumstances, as several members of her family are incarcerated. She has the additional problem of not having the same creative outlet that boys from her neighborhood have in basketball. The communal aspect of that sport is lost on her while her brilliant spelling talents only alienate her that much further from the other kids. She is a real life version of the teen girls from Bend It Like Bendham with spelling as her soccer. Alternately, it’s the second coming of Hoop Dreams with spelling substituted in for pro ball. Her mother’s awe of Ashley’s gift demonstrates how the event has drawn the family together for a mutual goal: the $10,000 prize which comes with the championship. It is money their family could definitely use. Ashley is a darling girl with personality plus and a singular joy of living that makes her easy to love and root for.
April best demonstrates the passion required to be a championship level speller. She spent the entire summer prior to the school year studying for up to nine hours a day for this event. Her parents, a self-described Archie and Edith Bunker, are a bit mystified by the obsession, but the loving support and dedication offered by these simple folks is the best representation of what Spellbound wants to say about the positives of the national competition. In stark contrast to Neil’s family, they are simply along for the ride in order to show their daughter how much they care for her. When April’s name is called during the Nationals, the look of agony on her father’s face as he desperately tries to spare her the devastating emotional pain of failure takes the movie to another level.
As audience members, we are completely sucked into the world of spelling as we experience the potential highs and lows of a child who has spent an incredible amount of time practicing for the 12 or so words they need to spell correctly in order to win. Hundreds of hours of preparation may be obliterated with a single misstep. Simply by giving the viewer the smallest of snippets into the lives of the children, we are made completely vulnerable to the same sort of mood swings that the parents feel. It’s an impressive feat of documentation, and I would argue the most successful one since the afore-mentioned Hoop Dreams. Watching the movie makes me care about the subjects to a frightening degree. I couldn’t breathe at the moment when the kids I had come to know were called upon to have their moment in the blinding heat of the effulgent spotlight. The capturing of this claustrophobic moment in a way that makes it universal to an audience is masterfully done.
Spellbound received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary for 2002, and has begun to receive an expanded release in arthouses across the country. While the body of North American audiences are generally disinclined to watch a documentary, movie-goers willing to give director Jeffrey Blitz the benefit of the doubt will discover that he has helmed a masterpiece. Spellbound is an amazing accomplishment of empathy, and it stands out as an engrossing study of how all-encompassing the National Spelling Bee is to its participants.
Read what She Said.