Let it bee

Movie: Spellbound

Our Rating: 4.00

For sheer skill in documentary filmmaking, one would be hard pressed to find a more compelling example than Jeff Blitz's "Spellbound." The film's camera work, graphics, cross-cutting and storytelling are all flawlessly executed. But most amazing is the way in which Blitz has taken the journey of eight children to the National Spelling Bee competition and made it into both a nail-biting suspense thriller and a subtle commentary on American culture.

The documentary begins at regional competitions, where we meet a diverse group of contestants. There's Angela, the daughter of poor Mexican immigrants; Napur, the daughter of middle-class parents from Tampa; Ted, from rural Mississippi; Neil, a wealthy child with A-personality parents from California; and Ashley, a pampered daughter from New Haven, Conn.

As each child advances to the national competition, the audience becomes engrossed in the subculture of spelling bees. (One parent describes the process as just "another form of child abuse.") As we witness the Pavlovian responses these children have to the regimen of spelling-bee rules, and their anguished reactions to the wrong-answer bell, it becomes clear that much more is at stake: Spelling bees are beauty pageants for savants.

Also telling is a bee official who extols the virtues of the tournament as an embodiment of the American dream. This forms a stark contrast with the documentary's clear portrayal of the advantages of class in succeeding. Nearly maniacal parents of means employ multiple language tutors, computer programs and spelling specialists in multihour sessions to prepare future "champions."

Without lapsing into lecturing, "Spellbound" offers an entertaining and engrossing exploration of the aspirations and anxieties of American preteens.

(This review was originally published in June 2002, when "Spellbound" was screened as part of the Florida Film Festival.)


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected].

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.