Thursday, January 22, 2004

REVIEW: Spellbound

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

One of the signs that Spellbound is a great documentary is that I have almost no desire to talk about it in terms of filmmaking; director Jeffrey Blitz has made a film so transparent that my interest in it comes almost entirely from the subject and the people involved. That's a neat trick, considering that the first half consists largely of talking heads - kids and their friends, family, teachers, etc., talking directly to the camera about their participation in the national spelling bee and what it means for them. The second half is a well-edited presentation of the 2000 National Spelling Bee; where the eight subjects (and 241 other junior high-schoolers) compete and are eliminated until one is named champion.

I never did spelling bees in junior high; I don't even know if Greely Junior High participated in them. Math team was a similar type of event, though, and watching this movie reminded me of why I was only moderately successful there (one trip to a national meet in Jr. High, one in high school, both where I got my butt kicked) - it's hard work. Natural talent can only get you so far, and several of the top spellers we see here spend hours after school memorizing long lists of words and quizzing themselves on them. That sort of dedication is admirable, but in several cases it crowds everything else out. Many of the kids in this movie express relief when they finally reach the national bee and even when they're eliminated, because it's over, and no matter what their motivations were for getting into competitive spelling, they're going to have a lot more free time on their hands.

There are some things that caught my eye, though - a sequence where seven of the profiled kids are arriving in Washington, DC with their family, staying in hotels, all excited, while native Ashley White just climbs on the subway alone. The capital is a destination for the others, but a dreary place for her; I got the impression her goal was to put it behind her. And I found myself wondering who suffers more - the kids who put pressure on themselves, or those who are pressured by parents, teachers, and others who feel that they have the kids' best interests at heart.

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