Spellbound (2003) (U)

Film image
Jeff Blitz

The ViewLondon Review

Review byMatthew Turner06/10/2003

Five out of Five stars
Running time: 97 mins

F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C – funny, heart-breaking and nail-bitingly tense, this is one of the best films of the year.

Although practically unknown over here, the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee is something of a national institution in America and the televised final round attracts huge ratings, if not quite on a par with those of the Oscars or the Superbowl.

Sporting the superb tag-line “Little kids, BIG WORDS…” Spellbound is a terrific little documentary that follows the fortunes of eight children as they compete for the final round – it was deservedly Oscar-nominated this year but beaten out by Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine.

Who Spells Wins

Directed by Jeff Blitz, the film was made in 1999, which gives you some idea of how long it took to get to the screen. It starts with a title card which tells you that around 9 million kids (aged between 9 and 16) compete in the first round of the National Spelling Bee. Those 9 million are eventually whittled down to the 249 who will take part in the televised final round. It says "Over the next three days, 248 kids will misspell a word..." thereby setting out the vaguely Big Brother-style knockouts to come.

We then meet eight kids from different backgrounds and in the first half of the film we get to know them and their families and watch them win their regional rounds. The second half of the film is the nail-biting televised competition as, one by one, they all drop out... Will one of "our" kids be the eventual winner? (It's worth pointing out that of the 249 finalists of 1998's Spelling Bee, Jeff Blitz chose only twelve kids to follow, before editing down to the featured eight).

The film works on two basic levels - first of all, by the time of the competition you already have your favourites picked out and who you want to win. Also, the way it's filmed means that sometimes you think they're going out and they don't, and sometimes you think they're staying in and they don't. It's heart-breaking in places.

Spell With The Kiddies…

The other level, obviously, is that you end up spelling along with the kids. In case you think it sounds easy, the press notes reveal that the final words in previous competitions have included: “euonym” (1997), “chiaroscurist” (1998) and “succedaneum” (2001), although all the words come from an approved word list that the kids can study. They're also allowed to ask for the root of the word and the language of origin.

If the film has a flaw, it’s only that the documentary doesn’t tell you nearly as much about Harry, the sweet little kid who features most heavily in all the advertising. Clearly he has some sort of attention disorder – the press notes mention Ritalin - but no-one in the film talks about Harry’s problem at all. That said, there are some wonderful, heart-warming scenes, particularly the family’s reactions to their children’s progress.

In short, the film is hilarious, heart-breaking and incredibly tense in places. Don’t miss it – it’s easily one of the best films of the year. Highly recommended.

Film Trailer

Spellbound (2003) (U)
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Content updated: 23/09/2018 18:43

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