July, 2003, Documentary

No, not that middle-aged, (58-ish) piece of clever psychobabble from Hitchcock starring the recently deceased Gregory Peck; this nominee for Best Documentary in 2002 literally deserves its name; and thankfully, it exercises that exact hold on its audience.

In 1999, director Jeffrey Blitz decided to capture footage of 8 regional winners in that year's annual spelling bee contest and follow their fortunes as they competed, along with over 200 hundred others, in the national championships. I don't know how Blitz settled on these eight; perhaps he shot many more and then made his selections in the editing room. It really doesn't matter--this squad of young competitors go in search of fame and fortune, (i.e. college scholarships) with all the range of personality and background that Soderbergh brought to the cockeyed cast of Ocean's Eleven. There's a charming young Hispanic girl from south Texas with a mouthful of braces peeking out from behind her effervescent grin, an upper class damsel from Connecticut who seeks relief from her cram sessions by taking riding lessons, the shy son of an Indian immigrant in Southern California who works with a small army of tutors from inside and outside his family, a darkly silent hulk from small-town Missouri whose demeanor suggests he'll grow up to be either a brilliant intellectual or a serial killer, and Harry Altman, a middle class kid from New Jersey whose facial  expressions and self-conscious mannerisms  epitomize the word geek, despite his delicious sense of the absurd. 

These kids are all America outsiders; bright, competitive youngsters who internalize what their often hilariously-filmed parents seem unable to sense--that there is real loneliness in their children's lives that may only be assuaged by their ability to succeed at something as arcane as spelling words most of us will never hear, much less use. So they grill themselves, or have themselves grilled, in preparation for a competition both grueling and fiercely intense; spotlighted in front of an adult audience, performing a verbal high-wire act in which a single mistake punches your ticket…and in the Nation's Capital, no less, with lots of cameras whirling.

Blitz reels his audience in like a dry-fly pro landing a 5-pound rainbow trout--setting the hook, keeping the tension up, allowing some running room before bringing the catch home; you favor different contestants as they orally slug it out, round after round, politely requesting the language of derivation, repeatedly sounding out words of dizzying length and complexity and then launching their responses in an environment where a single erroneous letter cannot be withdrawn and an incorrect answer brings the swift pealing of a bell, announcing the contestant's elimination. 

At a tight 95 minutes in length, Spellbound manages to convey a great deal about each of these gifted but eccentric kids, yet the process seems more suited to those forms of eccentricity much beloved by the British. But there's another facet of this brood that's quintessentially American; lonely Don Quixote's all, these adolescent warriors reflect the diversity of race, class and religious tradition which so perfectly reflect this country's often frustrating melting pot. Only in America, as one pair of proud first-generation parents put it, could this demonstration of perfect competition based solely on merit be possible. It's hard not to admire this polyglot crew--and hard not to feel pride in the society that makes their opportunity to be winners so thrilling.

A footnote; The Aspen Times reported today that this film, along with two of the summer's best, (Winged Migration & Whale Rider) have collectively taken in less than $12 million at the box office since their respective releases weeks ago. That's just 1/6th of what "Terminator 3" has taken in during in the last 7 days. Reason? The latter is showing on over 3,500 screens across the country, while all three of these vastly superior offerings are on a total of only 429. Given those odds, you'll miss these movies if you do much more than blink--but don't despair; they'll all make their way onto DVD/VHS format eventually, so you can enjoy them at home in your jammies 'n slippers.  And in the case of "Spellbound", the transition to the small screen won't be a deterrent. So keep an eye out for this one at your neighborhood rental outlet--Blitz and the kids make it a real winner.  

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