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It sounds like the title of a Hitchcock movie. (In fact, it was: the 1945 Ingrid Bergman-Gregory Peck psychological thriller.) In reality, more than half a dozen films have carried this title since 1916, but the 2002 “Spellbound” is both more quotidian (“bound by spelling” as well as “headed for the spelling bee”) and the most refreshing: It’s about the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.

Director Jeffrey Blitz and his team follow 8 kids between 10 and 14 as they progress from their respective home towns to Washington, DC for the big one. (They originally shot 13 kids, but narrowed their scope to arrive at a very full 95-minute run time.)

The contestants are:

  • Angela Arenivar, a gangly, tin-grinning brunette and daughter of Mexican laborers who paid a coyote $500 to spirit them across the border many years before, from Perryton, Texas;
  • Nupur Lala, the daughter of immigrants from India and veteran of the 1998 national spelling bee (she dropped out in the third round), who plays violin, from Tampa, Florida;
  • Ted Brigham, a big, soft-spoken math lover from Rella, Missouri;
  • Emily Stagg, a suburban horse rider and singer in a girls chorus who placed tenth in the 1998 national, from New Haven, Connecticut;
  • Ashley White, a roly-poly black girl with a brilliant smile from the poor part of urban DC;
  • Neil Kadakia, another child of Indian immigrants who lives well and trains hard for the bee in San Clemente, California;
  • April DeGideo, the daughter of a former factory worker, now pub owner in Amber, Pennsylvania; and
  • Harry Altman, an endearingly wired jokester who talks like a musical robot and picks out the National Anthem on the electric guitar, from Glen Rock, New Jersey.

Obviously the filmmakers have an impressively multicultural mix of kids. We get a couple minutes to meet each child in his or her home environment/town, with an appearance by parents and siblings, which is just enough to make us wish every one of them could win. Although the point is not stressed, it looks like there are two single-parent households as well as several newly-minted American families.

It’s a sports competition of a different sort: the heroes are nerds and loners, though all but possibly one come across as fairly well adjusted, and the contest ends with no discernible bitterness among the unsuccessful contestants. You don’t get the sense that, unlike high school football stars, any of these kids will look back on this period as the happiest time of their lives.

“Spellbound” is also a celebration of American values, a sort of straight version of Christopher Guest’s loving American satires (e.g., “Waiting for Guffman”). Several immigrant families perform the rite of praising the land of opportunity and equality; Angela gets a parade, TV coverage, even cheerleaders, after winning her regional bee; a mother says this competition is the one place where her kid is welcomed, appreciated, just one of the crowd.

Again, though a couple of the kids put in an unbelievable amount of work and training to prepare for the national bee, none of the parents seems obnoxiously pushy, just wonderfully supportive, and several are loveably kooky. You can’t help adoring them even as you laugh at them.

The filmmakers keep this sizable cast reasonably straight for the viewer with repeated screenings of a “poster” of eight vertical portraits from which kids are removed as they miss a word in the national. The pleasant and unintrusive music by Daniel Hulsizer consists largely of a xylophone and harmonica duo, with an acoustic guitar strumming in sometimes.

Blitz, Welch, and their cameras don’t miss the many small opportunities for laughs. An earnest small businessman talks about supporting the local girl who has done good: turns out he runs a Hooters, and their sign reads “Congradul tions Nupur.” Similarly, a local booster sign wishes good luck to “chapm” Ted. After one of the kids chokes in the national, a sibling declares: “If I had blood pressure it would have rocketed sky-high!”

One of the biggest laughs of the movie comes in the middle of some short interviews with past winners, from the very first champ, 1925’s Frank Neuhauser, through Gidget-y Paige Kimble, the blonde 1981 champ and current director of the bee. But it’s Jonathan Knisely, the 1971 winner, who admits: “I don’t think [winning] really helped me in my love life – my nascent love life. I mean, something like that could be considered something of a liability.”

Editor Yana Gorskaya gets to have fun shuffling through reaction shots: a series of kids exulting as they leave the mike after getting a dicey one right, a cascade of fallen faces as the “wrong” bell dings them out of the running, various looks of befuddlement and tension as children encounter an unfamiliar word. (The deer-in-the-headlights shock of the girl who hears “chateaubriand” is priceless.)

This is truly a movie for the whole family. Grownups brought their children to the screenings my wife and I saw separately in Portland, and the audiences gasped, groaned, and cheered far more than at most of the CGI-drunken summer blockbusters we’ve seen in recent years.

As a matter of marketing, it appears the makers of “Spellbound” have done just about everything right to shepherd their baby to the audience it so richly deserves. First, they did the rounds of film festivals for a good year, premiering at the South by Southwest in March 2002, traveling to the Tribeca in May, Los Angeles in June, Toronto in September, and landing a useful Oscar nomination. There followed Palm Springs in January 2003, Portland in February, Philadelphia in April, New York City at the end of the same month, and finally a quiet opening for general release at the beginning of May. An enthusiastic story on National Public Radio later that month surely helped.

As of mid June 2003, it looks like “Spellbound” is developing a healthy momentum on word of mouth. Starting at barely $23,000 its first week, box office grosses have at least doubled nearly every subsequent week, so that by June “Spellbound” had had its first million-dollar week. Maybe not “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” success, but for a little independent documentary, it’s the same sort of nerdy, come-from-behind performance it celebrates.

David Loftus


At the age of 17, David Loftus took second in the 1976 Oregon State Spelling Contest. He aced “existentialism,” “irascible,” “subpoena,” “apothecary,” “manumit,” “paraphernalia” (a word he had to write many times 12 years later as a police reporter, as in “drug paraphernalia”), “gaiety,” and “phlegm,” but – it was not a sudden death competition – missed “chlorophyll” and “millenary,” among others.
David Loftus, Writer
- AllWatchers.com


Jeffrey Blitz – Director, Producer, Cinematographer
Sean Welch – Producer, Sound
Ronnie Eisen – Associate Producer
Yana Gorskaya -- Editor
Peter Brown, Joe Dzuban – Sound post-production
Daniel Hulsizer – Original Music

2002, 95 minutes


2002 Best Documentary Feature, South by Southwest Film Festival
2002 Maverick Award, Best Documentary, Woodstock Film Festival
2002 Golden Maile Award, Best Documentary, Hawaii International Film Festival
2003 Best Film, Cleveland International Film Festival
2003 Best First Film, Best Documentary, Audience Award, Portland International Film Festival
2003 Oscar Nomination, Best Documentary, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences