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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Documentary or mockumentary?,
The documentary follows eight kids from very different social and economic backgrounds as they prepare for, and then compete in the Bee. The dedication and determination shown by the competitors is extraordinary, whilst the pressure they are put under during the actual contest makes you wonder whether it is all worth it.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable documentary which reveals a snapshot of American life rarely touched upon and little known about in the UK.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful,
By A Customer
But be prepared to be shocked. The person I went to see it with absolutely hated it, she found it almost torturous to the children involved and went away feeling sullenly depressed.
So the same film can evoke two such contrary emotions? It must be good!!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I-AM-A-MUSICAL-ROBOT,
After introducing the youths and their families, the documentary accounts the actual bee. The tension is nearly unbearable when the spellers are given a difficult word, and seeing them eliminated is heart-wrenching. The documentary swells to a remarkable finale, due to the skillful editing by Yana Gorskaya and the debut work of director, Jeffrey Blitz. In addition, "Spellbound" is filled with amazing triumphs and heart-breakers. Hearing Ashley White's single, disadvantaged mother explain that the greatest moment of her life was seeing her daughter crowned champion at the city spelling bee is sure to leave a lump in your throat. Another warm moment is when a mother discusses how her child is somewhat of an outcast in her school but that she's popular at the bee. These children have managed to find ways of belonging and succeeding despite their quirks, which elevates further the amazing nature of their accomplishments.
"Spellbound" was Oscar-nominated for best documentary in 2003, losing to the flashier but less deserving "Bowling for Columbine." A truly excellent documentary exposes fundamental truths about us or our nation, and "Spellbound" certainly passes this litmus test. By following youngsters from a variety of backgrounds, nothing short of the American Dream is revealed. Ultimately, "Spellbound" is fantastic and perhaps the most touching and profound documentary of its kind since "Hoop Dreams." A most highly recommended film experience!
Extras: 1) Biographies and "where are they now" information for each speller. 2) A fascinating commentary featuring the director, producer, and editor. 3) Synopses of three spelling bee contestants who were not featured in the final cut of the documentary. The stories of these three spellers are probably not as compelling as the eight youngsters highlighted in the main documentary, although young Bradley Feldman's unrequited crush on his teen-aged spelling coach is terrific.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I don�t think [winning] really helped me in my love life!",
The kids are of course terrific - some are in it for the fun and enjoyment while others are taking it very seriously with an unadulterated determination to win. Angela is a gangly brunette and daughter of Mexican laborers in Texas. Nupur lives in Tampa, Florida and is the daughter of immigrants from India. She's a veteran of the 1998 national spelling bee but was eliminated in the third round. Ted, the son of farming parents, is a big, soft-spoken math lover from Rella, Missouri. Emily is a suburban horse rider and singer in a girl's chorus from New Haven, Connecticut. Ashley is a cute and bubbly black girl with a brilliant smile from a poor part of Washington DC. Neil lives in San Clemente, California and is child of wealthy Indian immigrants. Neil trains hard and is pushed by his over achieving father. April is the adorably eccentric daughter of former factory worker, now pub owner in Amber, Pennsylvania. And Harry from Glen Rock, New Jersey is an endearingly extraverted jokester who likes to talk like a musical robot.
Viewers will probably find themselves trying to spell the words for themselves as the tension mounts and the competition heats up. This is a quiet, well-mannered competition where the heroes are loners and thinkers that have a love of words and wordplay. There are also no hard feelings when the various kids are eliminated and some of them feel positively relieved that they don't have to study the dictionary anymore. A couple of the kids work and train unbelievably hard to prepare but none of the parents seem overly obnoxious or pushy, they're just wonderfully supportive, and several are loveably kooky.
There are some nice additions to the film with interviews with past winners, and there are some great reaction shots with the kids acting triumphant as they leave the mike after getting a hard word right or looking crest-fallen when a wrongly spelt word takes them out of the competition. The viewer will really feel for the kids who look befuddled and tense as they encounter an unfamiliar word. Spellbound is great fun and is a film that the whole family can endlessly enjoy. Mike Leonard September 04.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Professional competition among kids,
One of the thoughts I had when I was watching this movie was how difficult it must be for some of these kids to live with the high expectations their inner circle imposes upon them. Of course, the burden is a lot heavier in some cases than in others, but in all the examples shown, one gets the idea that the level of nervousness is a lot higher than in any other activity the children may participate in. For example, in the case of football, there may be situations in a game in which a player is under pressure, but this usually does not last long, the kid has the support from other teammates and the responsibility shifts among players. In the case of the spelling bee, one mistake and it's over!
In some cases the expectations of the fathers are tremendous. Neil spells 7,000 to 8,000 words a day when he is close to a competition. His mother comments: "When you fight in a war everybody has the same goal". His father tutors him when he can, and pays for several tutors, one for each different root language. In my opinion this can only be detrimental for Neil, and you can see his fear every time he has to go up to the microphone and spell. On the other hand, you have kids like Harry, who is very talkative and joking all the time, plays the guitar and studies spelling only one hour to one and a half hours per day.
I enjoyed this movie because I think it may present a reality check for a lot of parents that have their kids in spelling competitions. The message I got from it was that if you keep an attitude that allows the kid to have fun while learning and doing the best he can, then you and your kid will be a lot happier than if you impose the competition as a job (or allow the child to take it that way).
For those of you that enjoyed watching the National Spelling Bee in the past, this will be an opportunity to view the highlights of the 1999 finals again. Whether you are interested in the effects that the competition have on the children or in the excitement of this contest, this is a movie that you will enjoy.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars D-U-H, duh,
SPELLBOUND follows eight elementary school students - 3 boys, 5 girls - from regional spelling contests to the Superbowl of orthography, the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. "Follows" is misleading as, in order to produce the documentary, the film makers apparently had to wait until the event was concluded, and then work backwards to tell the stories of a select handful of contestants out of the 200+ attending. After all, one of the eight proved to be the winner, and how could the film's creators have known? And the demographic diversity of The Eight reflects a conscientious effort at political correctness.
As I watched The Eight prepare and drill for the big game, usually with the help of parents, I realized that spelling proficiency at this level is an arcane talent not necessarily indicative of a well-rounded personality. (Much like a scientist so immersed in the life cycle of H-E-L-E-O-P-L-A-N-K-T-O-N that he can't balance a checkbook.) I was occasionally left thinking they should read more, as when a contestant could successfully spell a relatively common word while not knowing its meaning. That's why I was rooting for Nupur Lala, a young girl of Indian heritage - she seemed otherwise so "normal".
When the most obnoxious of The Eight succumbed to B-A-N-N-S (as in "marriage banns") and the boy's mother whined that he would've known it had the family been Catholic, and he himself complained that the contest's moderator hadn't pronounced the word properly - he did; I was born Catholic; I know - I decided this wasn't a marathon for sissies. When the going gets tough, the tough need to get going. As elimination rounds were played out and the words crossed the outer boundaries of my SpellCheck software and left me without a clue, the tension mounted.
Compared to such phenomenal documentaries as WINGED MIGRATION or THE ENDURANCE, SPELLBOUND rates perhaps one star. But, let's be J-O-N-N-I-C-K (jonnick = fair). This is a well-done and engaging portrayal of what I assume is perhaps a uniquely American ritual. And for Nupur, honor is due.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple, but genuinely charming documentary,
Spellbound follows a handful of young teenagers from different backgrounds as they bid to become the national spelling champion. Each one must progress through the local heats to make it to the final, in which each child in turn is given a word which they must pronounce and then spell correctly. First letter out of place and you go home. The pressure is incredible.
As one mother recounts, the spelling bee is like a different kind of child abuse, and watching the expressions on the faces of those who miss a word, it is difficult to disagree. But for some children, the experience feels rewarding, particularly for those from poor, immigrant families who are working double time to keep up with their rich, Waspy peers.
The extent to which they push themselves, or are pushed by their parents, however, is the most striking thing. Some of the revision routines are mind-boggling; your eyes splay wide, unable to comprehend what a parent expects their child to achieve. But it is a gentle documentary, and for the most part you see some very gifted children doing something well because they want to. It is refreshing to see a film about geeks that treats them so warmly, and it leaves you reeling, just a little, at how much in the world there is to know.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating subculture,
This review is from: Spellbound [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)This documentary covers 8 young spelling champs who are competing at the spelling nationals. The director has filmed this in such a way that the viewer is given insight and background into these children's lives and family relations.
The most interesting aspect of this film, to me, was the different strategies and family dynamics that went into each of these 8 competitors. Some came from well-to-do families that gave the child drive and focus, while others came from average American homes and received support but no pressure (not in all cases). These children seemed to be driven for different reasons than the others. Another interesting aspect was the influence of religion in some of the children's lives. The director was direct and honest in presenting this important element.
I found this a very interesting movie that was well filmed and edited. I especially enjoyed the DVD feature that let the viewer know where these kids are today, I found this gave a bit more closure than just seeing them win or lose.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strangely compelling,
The children themselves are all outstanding for being so entirely likeable. Some of them may be lacking in social skills and all are aware of the stigma of their intelligence, but behind all the abnormal drive and dedication - they are still children. As we follow gangly, giggly Ashley, Nupur, the wonderfully frank Emily, quiet misfit Ted, over-pressured Neil, bubbly cheerful Ashley, self-deprecating April and the chaotic, talkative Harry ("do I sound like a musical robot?"), whose agonised, trembling face has become the iconic image of this film, we start almost to care as much as they do. We desperately hope that one of them will win. In the television coverage two children are tipped as 'favourites': Emily and another boy who is not one of 'ours.' In a strange way that feeds off the inherent brutality of the Spelling Bee system, we want him to fail. We watch him sign autographs. We hear his church praising the way he 'honours his mother and father.' He becomes almost the enemy.
The insights the different viewpoints offer into this strange world are startling and sometimes saddening. A competitor's mother describes it as 'the worst form of child abuse.' Ted's teacher tells flatly how he doesn't really have any friends, while others talk of how the National Spelling Bee final is the only place where their gifted, unusual children can feel normal, popular and at home. Repeatedly the children try to rationalise the prospect of failure: 'No more studying. I won't have to do this any more.' It's their natural competitiveness, a craving to Be The Best, or in some cases just a laid-back enjoyment, which keeps them studying in every spare minute at the sacrifice of the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, the parents range from the reassuringly comfortable and grounded to the obsessively pushy, hiring German and French teachers to tutor their children in foreign-origin words.
And of course, there's something far bigger at stake than just the Spelling Bee. Ashley is from a deprived area of Washington, while Angela is the daughter of a Mexican father who speaks no English, and Neil and Nupur are children of Indian immigrants. For them, America is the land of opportunity, and something so inherently trivial as the Spelling Bee competition has become the avatar for future success, happiness and the American Dream.
Spellbound is a beautifully crafted view of a piece of Americana. It's tense and unjudgemental, scary, warming, and far more compelling than you might expect of a film about Spelling. An unforgetable film.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spellbinding,
Director Jeffrey Blitz's approach to making this most interesting documentary is straight-forward: pick eight contestants. Produce a mini-documentary on each one of them with scenes from family life, school. Interview their teachers, their parents, and some of their friends so that we get to know the contestants. Show the town they live in and the land they grew up on. Cut each mini-documentary to a few minutes and run them one after the other before taking us to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
Film the spelling bee and show the eight in action along with some of the other 242 or so who made it to the Capitol. Start with round one. Show the officials, the people who read the words to the contestants and answer questions about the words, such as word origin, definition, pronunciation, and root. Show the eager parents. Show the kids on stage with wrinkled brow and sweaty hands--well, you can't show the sweaty hands, although one mother reported that her hands got all wet when her daughter's turn came and then got all dry afterwards. Get some shots of the kids talking. Show the faces with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat
And guess what? The film plays itself. It's a natural. We identify with the contestants, perhaps have our favorite. The tension builds. The hour and a half flies by. The spelling bee is a great spectator sport!
Another thing I liked about this was the fact that although the eager parents would put your usual stage moms or little league dads to shame in the way they pushed their kids, when it was over, it was over. A couple of the kids said they were disappointed not to have won, but what a relief it was not to have to study the dictionary anymore! Of course there is always next year, but unlike baseball and the Broadway stage, you can grow too old to compete in the spelling bee--although now that I think about it, I wouldn't be surprised to find that they have adult spelling bees, maybe even spelling bees for senior citizens.
Another nice thing is the view Blitz gives us of the Heartland. The film amounts to a glimpse of America the melting pot near the beginning of the 21st Century (the contest is from 1999).
Also educational were insights into the way the kids learned to be excellent spellers. They memorized, yes, but they also learned which letters were likely to be correct for certain sounds based on the language of origin of the word. Greek words--there a lot of scientific Greek words in the dictionary--almost always have every letter pronounced (although watch out for those silent leading "m's"!). French words are just the opposite. I used to teach honors English and I can tell you that half the kids could out-spell me. The best kid I had just seemed to do it naturally. I realized however after talking to him that his approach was phonetic to start. That was the default. Every word that could be spelled correctly phonetically he noted and put aside in his mind. (His habit was to notice the spelling of every new word he encountered.) If the word was not spelled phonetically, it was an exception and he noted why it was an exception and dreamed up some mnemonic--silent leading m!--device to remember the exception. I could never spell a word like "lieutenant" (French) until I also developed a mnemonic device. In this case I made a sentence out of the word: "Lie-u-tenant" or I found the little words within: "lie," ... "ten," "ant."
Spellbound won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2002, and it's that good. People and especially young people can identify (or not!) with kids their own age, and they can choose their favorites to root for.
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Spellbound  by Jeffrey Blitz (DVD)