Movie Reviews
12:28 pm
Tue June 10, 2003

Spellbound

This film redefines American sports energy.

Jeff Blitz's youthful and positive documentary, "Spellbound," shows eight contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee in and outside of competition. The remarkable characteristic of this film is that the young contenders are almost without care about being eliminated (from thousands down to one). Tears, yes, but bitterness and despair are almost absent.

If the spirit of American sports is extreme competition with soccer moms and out-of-control dads, this film redefines that energy in the most positive way, emphatically distributing the goodwill and camaraderie in a wholesome, energetic orgy of intellectual angst. Yes, the kids are by and large nerdy, and the parents a stew of caring, but almost everyone is happy and without malice.

The other unusual aspect of this competition is the elimination aftermath, in which contestants are disappointed at losing but almost ecstatic at no longer having to study and compete. I have never heard athletes say this was the end for them; most seem to wait another day, even some way past their prime.

But these combatants appear to know there is more to life. I suspect these are the most balanced losers in the history of competition. Their adult lives illustrated in this film are wistful about their verbal success but do not hang on to the glory.

The best response is the winner who admits the championship did not help his love life. My favorite is Harry Altman, a nerd in progress, whose nervous laugh and robotic sounds are amusing and no doubt alienating from the cool kids. His mannerisms are the stuff of ?Best-of-Show? satire and uncharacteristic of the students in this film.

The documentary is sweetest when the contestants reveal their innocent but competitive selves. One comments on the loneliness of the long-distance speller: "I don't have any peers, or if I do, I rarely see them."