One groans, “I might have known it (Banns) if I were Catholic; I feel sorry for the boy from Texas who got Yenta.”


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis

            Where does the National Spelling Bee fall on your list of priorities?  Director Jeff Blitz’s “Spellbound” may well put it near the top, for one evening anyway, and the chances are good that your mind will drift back to this absorbing documentary for a long time afterward.  In a year when movies have   celebrated slackers, abusers, druggies, jailbirds, and losers, it is a curiously full relief to dip into the quirky culture of spelling.  And it is especially exciting when the ambition to win comes from within these kids rather than from parents driven by social combat. 

This is a celebration of the individual achievements of kids who love words, an upbeat movie made not so much with the sentimental glow of success of these kids as with the discovery and gradual comprehension of their passion.  Director Jeff Blitz uses a mini digital camera just like yours to follow eight contestants as they win their way to the 1999 finals of the National Spelling Bee.  Gathered in Washington, D.C., 249 finalists battle it out until the last of them falters – one mischosen letter in one word ends each dream. 

                The eight are widely diverse in background and heritage.  Angela - Perryton, Texas - is the daughter of illegal immigrants who came to America in search of a better life; Napur - Tampa, FLA - is the daughter of an Indian father who says, “You can get a sense of belonging in America that you can get nowhere else.”  Ted, a country boy from Missouri, is a poor fit in a rural culture.  Emily - New Haven, CT - is a fierce competitor; 

In the single exception to the self motivation, Neil - San Clemente, CA - studies 4000 words a day under the heavy hand of his Indian father, Rasjeh while his mother, Darshanna, lays his clothes out to save two minutes of his time.  Rasjeh is a father who hires French, German, and Spanish tutors to break down word roots and believes, “There’s no way you can fail in this country.  If you work hard you’ll make it. 

                April, Ambler, PA, has parents who watch their daughter with curiosity.  Where did she come from?   Ashley, from Washington, DC, is puffed up with confidence, the kind that makes you dread the inevitable pin that will prick the bubble.  Harry, Glen Rock, NJ – well, nobody can sum Harry up. 

                When they meet in the Washington Grand Hyatt for the nationals, they have earned their first trip to a big hotel in a big town.  By Round 3, down to 168 spellers, we are still absorbed in their expressions as they think through their answers.  One groans, “I might have known it (Banns) if I were Catholic; I feel sorry for the boy from Texas who got Yenta.”  And so it goes until the winner stands alone and the audience has a new sense of wonder at yet another thriving American sub-culture.

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