Opens Fri June 27 at the Varsity.
The little boy receives a word he's never heard before: "banns." Panicked, he begins mumbling to himself, muddling his way through the problem, a microphone picking up his desperate sighs and whispers. He is alone on the stage, broadcast by ESPN, baking under the lights. If he misses, he will hear the harsh ring of a bell and it will all be over. If he gets it, he moves on. As we watch him, a series of quick cuts takes us through his various facial contortions--a hilarious series of tics and crumples as he tortures himself. He has no idea. Bands? He's gonna hazard a guess....
So begins Jeffrey Blitz's amazing documentary Spellbound, which chronicles eight near-teens as they compete in the National Spelling Bee. At least, that's the film's obvious premise; the less obvious one, what the documentary really is, is a love letter to America. National pride via a national bee.
And there is much pride to be found. The film's subjects--three boys and five girls--come from various economic and ethnic backgrounds (a quick breakdown: four whites, one Hispanic, one African American, and two Indians). Each comes from a happy home, and each is driven to take the national title; their love of words, and an eagerness to succeed, fuels the long hours of rote memorization they endure. Their parents may have money, or not, but one thing is readily apparent: The kids are bound for successful careers and lives. They are the American dream, on stage, trying to remember how to spell "logorrhea."
Shooting on digital, Blitz casts a caring eye on his subjects. To be sure, there would be ample room to mock each of the families (what families can't be easily mocked by an outsider?), but his film is not about fashioning entertainment out of disdain. The true power of the beautifully shot and edited Spellbound is that you come to care about all of the kids, stressing and sweating along with their parents, as the group is slowly whittled down to one. You will be hard-pressed to find a better documentary this year--or a better film, for that matter. See it now because, for some unfathomable reason, it's only here for a week.