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Spellbound By Matt Singer
Spellbound is the type of movie that reminds you why you go to the movies, why it is worth suffering through endless mediocrities, to find that one very special experience that delights, entertains, enlightens, all at once. Spellbound feels like a gift; it speaks to my sensibilities and my interests, and it delivers on every conceivable level. If I am not considering this film in December as one of the best I have seen in 2003, then I am a lucky man, for it would take some fantastic filmmaking to top this.
Eight children and their families comprise the cast. Each is an exceptional speller, each one of 249 contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. Besides their affinity for linguistics, the nine children are all unique, and each comes from a different background. Roughly the first half of Spellbound introduces the eccentric cast, like Harry Altman, who dashes up to the microphone during the Bee, and who loves the sound of his own voice (“Do I sound like a musical robot?” he asks during an interview). Some of the stories, like that of Angela, whose parents are illegal immigrants and cannot speak English, are inspiring, but all present this spelling bee as a singular accomplishment worth any amount of effort. Director Jeffrey Blitz presents these stories with an air of simple truth and, often, natural humor. In fact, Spellbound, which has the appearance and style of the fake documentaries of Christopher Guest, is better and funnier than Guest’s last film, A Mighty Wind, which held to a similar structure with less success.
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Though Guest often creates memorably eccentric casts, none of his creations have been this humorous and utterly human at the same time. Spellbound invites us to poke fun at its protagonists, but to cheer them on all the more fiercely for it. One of the most interesting contestents isn’t even one of the proper cast; he’s a small child named Georgie who most have picked as a favorite to win the Bee. He is Indian, devoutly Christian (He signs a fan’s program “Trust in Jesus!”), speaks with an impediment, and is, in general, a bit creepy. Guest could never make up a character like this, and for this, I was reminded why nonfiction film can be so effective.
Once the finalists get to the Bee, the tension quickly reaches near-unbearable levels. Because we’ve come to care for all eight of the kids for one reason or another, we want them all to win. And yet, we know that only one can be the winner, and that the rules of the Spelling Bee make things even more difficut; once you officially announce a letter as part of the spelling of a word, for example, you cannot take it back. A single letter is all that it takes for elimination, which can happen at any moment. You will not believe how much suspense a SPELLING BEE could generate on film, but Blitz builds the second half of his film into a feverish work of tension.
Little time is spent on the mechanics of good spelling, or even its importance. For most of these parents and children, it is a means to an end, a way to prove your smarter, to test one’s abilities, to stave off the boredom of small-town life. It’s easy to understand the appeal, which seems grounded in the contest’s mixture of luck, skill, and intense competition, while being appauled by the lengths to which someone will go to be able to spell words they will never be called upon to use once during their entire life.
I was touched by Spellbound. Your ticket price grants you entrance into another world, where you meet people you would otherwise never meet, see things from their viewpoint, and grow to understand them, and in the process, a little about yourself as well. It is a charming experience that has been given the perfect title - if you’re not spellbound by this picture, you need to cut back on the prescription medication.