Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

film: Stage Fright

Are documentaries the antidote to reality television?


The spellers constitute a mélange of American diversity spanning from opulent Orange County, Calif. to the Washington, D.C. projects. And that is the springboard from which the larger, more resonant theme of American identity diverges from the straightforward story of a spelling bee. The misspelling of the word banns becomes an illustration of the importance of cultural perspective: A Jewish kid named Harry is eliminated by a Catholic word, and an Indian boy stumbles after drawing the Yiddish word yenta.

The fact that this movie was nominated for an Oscar and lost to Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” provides ample fodder for debate. “Spellbound” is a future IT whiz-kid’s version of “Hoop Dreams,” but lacks the political significance of either. Still, you might be surprised by how compelling and subtly insightful the film is.

The fact is director Jeff Blitz makes you care for more than just the underdog. Sure you root for Angela and her Spanish-speaking parents or Ashley, a “prayer warrior” whose mother sits around smoking and complaining. Who wouldn’t? But the kids who ride horses, use computer training and have coaches are just as lovable. It begs the question: Won’t watching children trying to superachieve always evoke empathy? It’s the interaction of the families that propels this film past just covering the event and into defining it. And that is what makes a documentary.

The directorial style of first-timer Jeff Blitz mesmerizes and allows the layers of narrative to flow into each other. What starts as a straightforward doc about the spelling bee unfolds into a drama of hope, obsession and suspense. With humor Christopher Guest couldn’t deliver (a Hooters’ sign displaying “Congradulations to Nupur Lala”) and moments of genuine pathos (several of the contestants casually mention their loneliness), “Spellbound” is a fascinating documentary about eight kids chasing the American dream through the use of knowledge. Yet knowing how to spell logorrhea probably isn’t as useful as knowing how to stop it. **** S

Add a comment