A review of “Spellbound” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: G for general audiences

Run Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

 

 

If the concept of a spelling bee leaves you yearning for an evening of watching paint dry, think again.  “Spellbound” is one of the most compelling and suspenseful films of the year.

Eight adolescent wordsmiths from around the country are at the core of this dramatic nail-biter.  They come from all walks of life --- a cross-section of contemporary Americana competing against 241 other national honors students who are passionate about words.

From the Texas panhandle migrant farmworker’s daughter and the eldest African-American daughter of a single mom from the Washington D.C. projects, to the only child of Connecticut-based well-to-do white-collar professionals, “Spellbound” totes its equal opportunity documentary cameras into the homes and lives of orthodontured and bespectacled youngsters to examine the backgrounds, the desire, and the grit of youngsters and parents alike who seek glory by means of obscure spelling words. (Quick: can you spell “logorrhea”? “Cephalgia”? “Opsimath”?)

The National Spelling Bee is one of the great American traditions, founded in 1925 as a healthy competition for bright teens who enjoy the English language. Pushy stage parents and their fiercely competitive offspring have raised the battle bar, working the system with a single-minded determination that drums a primal survival-of-the-fittest beat. Homespun efforts (Scrabble) jockey with pricier strategies (private tutors and 8-hour memorization marathons) for the big payoff.

The constant threat of elimination as the participants are picked off round by round (signaled by the sharp ping of a bell when a word is spelled incorrectly) is as agonizing as it is thrilling. Welcome comic relief arrives in the form of one ungainly Harry Altman, a young rubber-faced speller who lends new meaning to the word oddball.  Harry’s boundless energy and elastic expressions pave the way for genuine laughs while the stress is mounting.

It may not do for spelling what “Searching for Bobby Fischer” did for chess, but “Spellbound” is a real winner.