Speakin' Spell

Who would have thought -- a compelling film about spelling!

Jun 4, 2003 at 4:00 am
If you're reading this paper, chances are, you're more literate than the average American. If you're reading the film reviews, it's also likely that you've become familiar with words such as "bravura" and "eponymous," which seem to exist only in the vocabularies of professional movie assessors. But what if you were confronted with something such as "cephalalgia"? Or "apocope"? (My spell-check recognizes neither.) Could you know for certain, off the top of your head, whether "distractable" or "distractible" is correct? (The latter, just so's you know.)

Now imagine you're not yet a teenager but that this knowledge is expected of you. Such is the lot of the competitors in Spellbound, an Oscar-nominated documentary that plays like a sports movie but centers on the National Spelling Bee, in which children from schools around America battle for bragging rights over the ability to spell out loud (and, as a side effect, get really well prepared for the verbal portion of the SAT). Consider it an athletic contest of the mind -- ESPN does, as the sports network regularly televises the finals.

The movie opens with a particularly theatrical youngster contorting his face in all manner of positions as he attempts to spell what appears to be the simple word, "bands." We laugh at this apparent "choke," only to later find out that the word in question is "banns," a term likely familiar only to frequent churchgoers.

After that, the film's structure becomes simple, yet effective. We meet eight local champions, then follow them to the finals. In Texas we meet Angela, daughter of a Mexican immigrant cowhand who speaks no English. Even more amusing are her father's near-senile employers, one of whom opines that he always knew Mexicans weren't all lazy: "There's a lot of good ones mixed up in 'em." Nupur, who made the third round the previous year, is an Indian-American girl whose small town is so proud of her that the local Hooters puts up a "Congrad lations" sign on their marquee.

Neil, an Indian-American from San Clemente, has perhaps the most methodical preparation of all: His father analyzes all previous National Spelling Bees, looking for patterns, and goes through the dictionary methodically. He doesn't stop there: Next up is the hiring of foreign-language tutors, not to actually make Neil multilingual but to teach him root patterns that have been imported into English. It is noted that Indian immigrants make up a large proportion of the bee's finalists; as to why, there's mention of the fact that in India, scholars don't often get second chances to correct their mistakes, so societal pressure to get it perfect the first time is higher.

Contestants similarly get no second chances; once a letter is uttered, it cannot be taken back. Slips of the tongue are no excuse -- early on, a kid asked to spell "mayonnaise" accidentally opens his mouth without thinking, utters an "a" and immediately realizes he's blown it. The suspense borders on sadistic -- a bell is rung when a contestant slips up and gets dismissed, but after a correct spelling, there's a pregnant pause. When it becomes clear that no bell has rung, the audience applauds, acknowledging that the spelling must be correct. Regis Philbin and Anne Robinson look like benevolent therapists compared with "official word pronouncer" Alex Cameron, a man who looks like a cross between Jewish radio commentator Dennis Prager and a bullfrog.

But back to the other competitors. We also meet Ted, who lives in a trailer and whose family keeps a cage full of peacocks in the backyard; Ashley, from the inner city of Washington D.C.; April, distinguished primarily by her cornball mom, who gets way too much enjoyment from puns involving the word "bee"; Emily, who's also a singer and horseback rider but enjoys spelling because it's the one field in which she gets to be the best; and Harry, the aforementioned "banns" kid and most stereotypical nerd of the bunch. Hamming it up for the camera by asking whether the boom mic is edible and talking like a musical robot, Harry doesn't seem to realize that we're laughing at him, not with him.

Late in the game, we meet another Indian kid (and St. Louisan), George Thampy. Turns out he was originally supposed to be one of the film's main subjects, until his school district's strict regulations restricted filming and gave his parents cold feet. It's just as well: With his obnoxious evangelical Christian proselytizing, he'd make for an annoying protagonist.

Whatever one's reservations might be about any of the individual eight subjects or the subject matter, they're quickly washed away -- you may not believe how tense a spelling competition can be to watch, but, chances are, you'll lose any traces of skepticism and get sucked in by film's end. Obviously it helps that the contest is edited down to a digestible length by director Jeff Blitz and editor Yana Gorskaya. If you were ever an academically inclined type during your school days, or even if you weren't and wondered how hard being a smart kid might be, apart from all the beatings, you owe it to yourself to get Spellbound.