Review: Spellbound (Blitz, 2002)

d. Jeffrey Blitz w. n/a st. Angela Arenivar, Ubaldo Arenivar, Jorge Arenivar, Mr. Scott McGarraugh, Mrs. Lindy McGarraugh, Concepción Arenivar, Mrs. Slaughter, Neelima Marupudi, Nupur Lala, Ms. Whitehurst, Parag Lala, Meena Lala, Kuna Lala, Ted Brigham

An early scene involving an elderly couple, where Granny has to tell her hard of hearing husband the answer to a simple question three times, makes me think of Christopher Guest and his mock-doc satire. A following scene sees Grandpa declare that Mexican’s ‘are not all bums and tramps’ and some are indeed ‘reliable’, makes you wonder whether you’re watching real life, the outward racism 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. 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 as a consequence.

spellbound film review jeffrey blitz
“Does this sound like a musical robot?”

“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. As one of the contestant’s 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 affects the children and the parents involved.

The first half of “Spellbound” concentrates on the backgrounds of the contestants and their preparations for the big event, quickly establishing a diverse group, their only common ground 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, a young Mexican girl’s 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 parent’s thought-processes is: if you are successful, is happiness then guaranteed?

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 like 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. Certainly, one parent 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 after all the kids have arrived at the spelling contest in Washington, they’re all equal and fit in, they’re not the social outcast 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 we met 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 is obvious, when they get it wrong their brave faces hide a world that has just collapsed. However, for some, the end of the contest no matter what their finishing position was, 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 blonde 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 satisfying niche 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 is their little heaven. It almost proves there is an American Dream, although different for everyone, it exists. Well…that is until you miss a letter and spell ‘ecclesiastical’ wrong.

Top10Films Rating: 9/10
Review by Dan Stephens
Editor, Top10Films

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Aiden R. Reply

    Oh my god, the musical robot kid, WTF was up with that?! You remember his name by chance? Need to see if he’s on Facebook.

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