(G) 3 1/2 stars
In the pre-spell check era, being an impeccable speller was largely considered a handy, albeit vaguely geeky, skill. But now that we can rely on computers to automatically correct our every error, what could possibly compel kids today not only to spell well, but to compete doggedly to become the best speller in the land? Spellbound, the hit documentary following eight contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee, has done for the mystical art and science of spelling what the legendary match between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue did for chess. The first two-thirds of the film crisscross the country, introducing eight of the 249 regional finalists who will compete in the national bee.
The kids couldn’t be more different — each striving for a variation on the American dream. Angela’s father is a cattle ranch hand who immigrated to Texas illegally; Angela’s academic success is proof positive of his belief that life would be better for his children north of the border. Nupur, daughter of Indian émigrés in Tampa, plays violin and competes against “the trio,” a team of nerds determined to unseat her in her second shot at the nationals. Ted is a strapping rural Missouri boy who lives in a doublewide trailer, alienated from his classmates by his prodigious intellect. In tony New Haven, Emily squeezes in spelling drills between horseback riding and singing lessons. Walking to school through the D.C. projects, the winsome Ashley tells the camera, “My life is like a movie. I go through different trials and tribulations, and then I overcome.” Neil basks in luxury in California; his Indian father has devised what he believes is an infallible system to ensure Neil’s win — a combination of meditation and rote memorization. April, daughter of a Pennsylvania bartender, puts in eight-hour days of study all summer to prepare for the bee. Harry, who seems to be a high-functioning autistic, leaps around his bedroom with manic energy — for him, the challenge is concentrating on each word long enough to spell it. What is most striking when watching these eight vie for top honors in the ESPN-televised National Spelling Bee are the looks on the kids’ faces, captured so aptly by first-time director Jeff Blitz, as their brains race to make sense of the stupefyingly obscure words.
Some approach the task logically, probing the word’s etymology, and then puzzling it out letter by letter, while others seem to enter a trance-like state, summoning the word fully formed from the depths of their minds. There are some excruciating moments in Spellbound, and some elating ones. To find out who wins, you’ll have to watch the film. I can reveal the winning word, however: “logorrhea: n. excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness.”