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.)