June 20, 2007

Spellbound (2002)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Stars: Nupur Lala, Neil Kadakia, Ted Brigham

What it's about. Eight middle school kids are profiled. Each his won a regional spelling bee championship, and qualified for the Nationals in Washington, D.C. We get a glimpse of their community, their home life, and their preparation for the big competition. The kids are subjected to enormous pressure at the Nationals. Only one child will win.

How I felt about it. This film has two parts. The eight profiles of selected regional winners takes up the first half. Then comes the big time at the Nationals. Every mispelled word is a small disaster for that child and his or her support network of parents, friends, and community. But win or lose, every participant is at least freed from the incredible stress placed on them, which is palpable even if you don't know the child involved. Then again, those who can still qualify will surely try again next year.

Communities, especially rural communities, adore their champion spellers. But it's more of a burden than a blessing for those who want to win. This requires spending virtually every possible moment cramming: learning the pronounciation, meaning, and (of course) the spelling of every obscure word, including scientific terms used only by the most specialized researchers.

You have to cram to win. Ted, an obviously bright student, has redneck parents with no clue, and perhaps no real interest, in preparing Ted for the Nationals. His preparation methods aren't shown, perhaps because he has none. He has no chance, and is the first profiled contestant to lose.

The opposite to Ted is Neil, and like many competitive Nationals contestants, is the offspring of successful immigrants. Neil's obsessively motivated father makes winning the National Spelling Bee the family goal. Neil's mother puts his clothes out in the morning while Neil is in the shower, so he can save a few minutes picking them out himself. Neil's father hires French, Spanish, German, and Latin tutors to instruct Neil in obscure words from those languages that might emerge at the Nationals. Neil is spectacularly trained. But is he brilliant enough to win?

The student I feel most sorry for is Neelima, who is the runner-up at a regional. Her losing word is cabaņa, which she spells as cabanya. Sorry, no words with tildes should be allowed in competition, because while ņ is a separate letter in the Spanish alphabet, it isn't in the English alphabet.

The pressure these students are placed under is enormous, and the words are preposterously obscure and convoluted. No wonder the winner is Nupur, who has it all: smarts, preparation, maturity, and remarkable poise.