The National Spelling Bee is something of an institution in the United States of America. Every year, nine million kids will compete for a place in the finals, held in Washington D.C., but only 249 actually make it. From there on, it's a sudden death competition where spelling just one letter wrong in the words you're given will see you eliminated. This film follows the efforts of eight children, all from diverse backgrounds, as they attempt to be the 1999 National Spelling Bee champion.
Although it's nothing to do with Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, this documentary features suspense the great director would be proud of. The first half of the story outlines a point in the lives of the eight, and they're not all geeks with Coke-bottle spectacles and their heads buried in books every waking hour. They are, however, all intelligent and articulate in their own ways, it's just that they're in the grip of an obsession with words, and so are their supporters: their families, teachers and friends. And let's not forget this is a film as much about the parents as their children.
Angela is the daughter of poor Mexican immigrants, and her father doesn't even speak English, in contrast to Angela, who knows every English word under the sun. Nupur is a studious, violin-playing girl who, like the others, has the full, pushy support of her Indian parents. Ted is a smalltown loner, whose mother and father want his interests to encompass something more than weaponry. Emily is a past master at the Spelling Bee, having competed before and done pretty well; she's a privileged girl who rides horses for a hobby.
Ashley's secret for success is prayer, she's a girl who prefers to stay indoors and, predictably, feels the weight of her family's expectations on her shoulders. Neil is an athlete and high achiever, who not only has the demands of his parents to endure, but also the responsibility to his relatives in India. April is a quiet girl whose life, her mother tells us, revolves around the Spelling Bee; the only other things she likes are rollercoasters, being a vegetarian and drinking coffee. Lastly, well, there's no other way to put it, Harry is a geek; he fully lives up to the stereotype of the competitors, and even speaks like a robot for the benefit of the camera.
Once we get to the national competition in the second half, the human interest level is undeniably compelling, and now we know of the kids' backgrounds, we don't really want to see any of them fail. But fail they do, as one by one they are knocked out, some taking it better than others; you'll feel very sorry for the ones who can't hide their disappointment, especially after seeing that "rabbit in the headlights" look they invariably get when an almost impossibly difficult word comes up. The contest may be a social leveller, but it evens out the differences in other ways, too: everybody who enters ends up a loser, bar one.
Emily's mother tells of how a friend described the Spelling Bee as a form of child abuse, and it's true the pressure put on these kids is painful to watch in such a competitive society, but when we see past winners (including the original from 1925) who don't seem to have turned out badly we're reassured - we don't see what happened to those finalists who didn't succeed, mind you. Yet, unlikely as it sounds, Spellbound makes for absorbing, frequently funny, and emotionally charged viewing, especially as there's no guarantee that any of the kids we've been watching will win. While it's the equal emphasis on the achievements of all those who took part that make this special, you're sympathetic to one of the losers who is relieved that she can now throw away her books and do something else, nevertheless. Music by Daniel Hulsizer.
[The DVD includes a filmmakers commentary that fills in the background, deleted scenes, a "hangman" game, a "where are they now?" feature, and more.]