An award winning documentary, this is the journey of eight competitive youngsters living in hope of becoming the National Spelling Bee champion. Director Jeff Blitz turns the cameras to the backgrounds and study methods of these driven young people, which vary dramatically - from April, who studies a dictionary eight hours a day, to Neil, whose grandfather has paid people in India to pray for him to win.
For the first ten minutes of Spellbound you could be forgiven for assuming that this is another sarcastic slice of American life from Christopher Guest - some of the characters featured in the opening scenes could so easily have been plucked from 'Best in Show'. But as the laughter subsides, you realise that this truly is a very watchable documentary and a great insight into what is an important part of American society for thousands of kids (and their scary parents) - the national Spelling Bee. 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.
Hitchcock did not direct this and it does not star Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Spellbound (1945) and Spellbound (2002) have in common the fact that they both won Academy Awards and both are 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.
This description is misleading : the picture is that of the DVD I would have expected to receive but it doesn't match the description (VHS) ...And I got a VHS which is totally beside the point....Of course, I have been kindly informed of a refund but I still don't know how to get what I want.
This extraordinary documentary follows eight youngsters as they prepare for the 1999 annual National Spelling Bee. If you've ever watched it on ESPN, then you've seen the unique spellers who often last to the final stages. "Spellbound" highlights brilliantly the ways in which these youngsters and their families are exceptional. The eight youngsters, their families, and their hometowns are profiled separately; these narratives are by turns funny, inspiring, and heart-wrenching. Among the more amazing stories is Angela Arevivar, whose parents came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico and don't speak English. Her father, however, sees clearly that Angela's success justifies leaving his home country, and he accompanies her proudly to the bee. Aside from these emotionally resonant stories, young Harry Altman nearly steals the show with his wacky humor, including his bizarre imitation of 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.