Spellbound (2002) Review
An early scene involving an elderly couple, where Granny has to tell her hard of hearing husband the answer to a question three times, stinks of Christopher Guest-style mocumentary hilarity. Even a following scene with the same couple where Granddad declares that Mexican’s ‘are not all bums and tramps’ and some are indeed ‘reliable’, makes you wonder whether this is actually real life, the racial undertones forcing you to question whether to laugh or be appalled. However, the film does tell a true story and it is this element that makes it most interesting, in that what we see is a world that most people don’t know exist, or simply don’t care to know. Should we ‘laugh’ at a 14 year old kid who spends most of his life reading the dictionary under his parents watchful guidance, or be ‘appalled’ at the parental pressure and the obscure, wayward social skills that appear the consequence.
Spellbound lost out on 2003 Oscar honours to Bowling For Columbine, but is actually the better film of the two, painting a picture with less force-fed Michael Moore anchoring. It does however have a very Americanised patriotism, as we know we’re in the ‘land of opportunity’ where dreams are made and broken, and as one of the contestants parents declares, ‘if you work hard in America you will succeed’. That maybe so, but at what expense? Director Jeffrey Blitz points his camera at eight contestants as they prepare for the televised, Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, using subjects from many differing backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and from different states around the U.S. He examines the magnified importance of the spelling bee, a contest that appears so trivial, and how it effects the children involved and their parents.
The first half of Spellbound concentrates on the contestants backgrounds and their preparations for the big event, quickly establishing a diverse group, their only thing in common being their ability to spell many an obscure word. Some of their parents seem to place more emphasis and pressure on their children than others, but what does come across is a genuine feeling that in their children, almost as an extension of themselves, they can finally achieve something and be successful in the world they live in. One father makes his son study for hours, learning words from the dictionary in many different languages, he constantly emphasises that if you don’t work hard you cannot achieve anything. But his emphasis on the spelling contest as a route to success seems to be more a justification for moving from India to live in the United States. Equally, the young Mexican girl, her possible ‘success’ in the contest could justify her parents crossing the border into the ‘land of opportunity’. Yes, working hard may indeed breed success, but it’s no guarantee, and what does lack in some of the parents thought-processes is, even if you are successful, being ‘happy’ because of it is not assured.
It isn’t clear whether the children’s enthusiasm is a performance for the camera because they know their parents will be watching, or is a genuine feeling towards the studying process and the contest itself. One young girl from a relatively poor, single-parent family, cites the $10, 000 as a chance for her and her mother to live a better life, but it seems such an unbelievable pressure for a young child to carry on their shoulders, when if anything, this chance to win a cash prize and be on television should be ‘fun’, first and foremost. Certainly, one of the parents seems obliged to point out that their child is indeed ‘normal’ and does things that the majority of kids their age get up to, but this appears more an attempt to brush over the fact that some of them don’t share the social skills of their peers. One boy freely admits he prefers to spend time alone, his hobbies being a fascination with explosives and shooting a bow and arrow. This obscurity within the spelling contest hopefuls seems to point towards the idea that working hard is one thing, but social skills and time to relax and have ‘fun’ is just as important in moulding the people of the future. As one mother observes, when all the kids get to the spelling contest, held in Washington, they’re all equal and ‘fit in’, they’re not the ‘freaky nerd’ or friendless ‘geek’ anymore.
Nothing though can take away the very real intensity of the competition, which is genuinely captivating and equally heartbreaking. Blitz presents us with the contest, set over two days, each round losing more and more contestants. Will the eight that we have met and become accustomed to perform well; will one of them win? Like the finale of a sports film, the team the audience roots for, scoring the winning point right at the very end, Spellbound turns into a riveting, nail-biting game, the children desperately trying to figure out how to spell the most random of words. When they get it right, the sense of relief if obvious, when they get it wrong their brave faces hide a world that has just collapsed. However at times, the end of the contest, whether they finish 200th or 20th, marks the end of having to study so incessantly, and the relief is evident. Almost as if a weight has been lifted off their shoulders, one girl comments she can now return to ‘normal’ life.
No matter how indifferent this diverse group of young lives appear, Blitz has no problem presenting us with sympathetic characters. The sympathy is less a compassionate reaction to their situations and more an empathetic understanding that these children, underneath their stone-faced, over-achieving exteriors, are indeed young minds desperately trying to find a purpose and place in life. The shunned Spelling Bee is for the Quarterbacks and Cheerleaders of the ‘work hard, play never’ crowd. While American society continues to glorify the star sports players and their popular blond girlfriends, the ‘cool’ crowd living life to the fullest with cocktails of drugs, alcohol and ‘promiscuous sex with many anonymous partner’, these young, so-called ‘geeks’ have found their little cove in the society they live in. During the contest, they’re the popular ones, living life at the top of the social food chain, it’s their little heaven. It almost proves there is an American Dream, although different for everyone, it exists, well…until you miss a letter and spell ‘ecclesiastical’ wrong, that is.
The picture is presented in open-matte 1.33:1, which allows for some extra image information at the top and bottom of the screen, as the theatrical version of the film was matted to fit a 1.85:1 frame. The difference is minimal and the film lends itself to 4:3 with its documentary aesthetic, so this isn’t a problem. The picture quality is good, showing very little print defaults.
The sound is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 and is clean and clear throughout. The dialogue and score have very little dynamic range, the dialogue remaining very mono throughout, but overall it’s fine in this context.
The film is complimented by an excellent commentary track with director Jeffrey Blitz, and producer Sean Welch, with other production staff. There are some deleted scenes with three other children who did not make the final cut of the film, and a couple of trailers. There are also some text based features including a ‘Where Are They Now’ section that has some information about what happened to the kids after the Spelling Bee, and pictures of them as they are now. There are also some games, information about the Spelling Contest and information about the filmmakers.
Spellbound is a compelling little film about little people, who go into a contest that has as much tension and excitement as any sports final – surprisingly. The DVD is a solid presentation of the film with some interesting additional features, especially the commentary.