When people think of spelling bees, they think of nerdy, bespectacled kids with braces, acne, and various other problems that make them social pariahs. Director Jeffrey Blitz proves all the stereotypes wrong in Spellbound, the Oscar nominated documentary that tracks eight students as they prepare for the 1999 Spelling Bee. The first half of the film focuses individually on each student, allowing the viewer to get to know him/her. Blitz engenders a connection with each student by showing him/her at home, allowing the opportunity for the audience to root for each person when the Bee, which takes place in the second half of the film, starts.

What is immediately apparent is that these are pretty normal kids, surrounded by normal parents. They do study a lot, and winning the Bee would be a great thing for them, but their parents all stress that not winning will not be the end of the world. Whether this was just for the camera or not is not clear. Most of these kids are well balanced and the ability to spell well is just another aspect of their personality. What also emerges is how diverse these children are. They span all aspects of the geographic, racial and socio-economic divide, and not just by how Blitz picked them. Angela Arenivar (above right) is the daughter of an illegal immigrant who cannot speak English. Angela's father came to America for his children to have a chance like Angela.

The Spelling Bee serves as the great equalizer, with African-American Ashley White coming from the Washington D.C. projects contrasted with Emily Stagg from New Haven, who takes horse-riding lessons and brought her au pair to the last Bee. The one annoying kid is Harry Altman (above left), the poster child for ADHD. He cannot sit still, spews words out machinegun style and cracks jokes like some preadolescent Woody Allen. These are normal kids, and Blitz portrays them as such. He also throws in a wry sense of humor, proving again that sometimes people say stupid things when presented with a camera. Other things are just surreal. Nupur Lala will forever have the memory that the local Hooters decided to put her name on their sign, which is odd enough, then spelled their message wrong.

Blitz has a good sense of timing, and uses this to his advantage when the Bee starts and he slows the pace down to an excruciating crawl. He did a fantastic job of choosing his subjects, and some go remarkably far. The camera switches from the speller to their parents in the audience, to the reader, and everybody is hoping to avoid the dreaded bell that will eliminate them if they misspell their word. Each progressive round becomes more exciting. Ashley cries while trying to spell a word she doesn't know and Harry grimaces like a moron. Neil Kadakia asks as many questions as he can, trying to ferret out clues to help him spell a word he's never heard of before. The entire process is brutal; one parent comparing it to a form of child abuse. Still, these are remarkably balanced children, and with their supporting parents, they'll all make it through.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 37 minutes, Rated G.

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