Speakin' Spell

Who would have thought -- a compelling film about spelling!

If you're reading this paper, chances are you're more literate than the average American. If you're reading the film reviews, it's also likely you've become familiar with words like bravura and eponymous, which seem to exist only in the vocabularies of professional movie assessors. But what if you were confronted with cephalalgia? Or apocope? (My spellcheck program recognizes neither.) Could you know for certain, off the top of your head, whether distractable or distractible is correct? (The latter, just so's you know.)

Now imagine that you're not yet a teenager and that this knowledge is expected of you. Such is the lot of the competitors in Spellbound, an Oscar-nominated documentary that plays like a sports movie but centers on the National Spelling Bee, in which children from schools around America battle for bragging rights over the ability to spell out loud (and, as a side effect, get really well-prepared for the verbal SAT). Consider it an athletic contest of the mind -- ESPN does, as the sports network regularly televises the finals.

The movie opens with a particularly theatrical youngster contorting his face in all manner of positions as he tries to spell what appears to be the simple word bands. We laugh at this apparent "choke," only to find out later that the word in question is banns, a term likely familiar only to frequent churchgoers.

After that, the film's structure becomes simple yet effective: We meet eight local champions, then follow them to the finals. In Texas we meet Angela, daughter of a Mexican immigrant cowhand who speaks no English. One of her father's near-senile employers opines that he always knew Mexicans weren't all lazy: "There's a lot of good ones mixed up in 'em." Nupur, who made the third round the previous year, is an Indian-American girl whose small town is so proud of her that the local Hooters puts up a "Congrad lations" sign on its marquee.

Neil, an Indian-American from San Clemente, has perhaps the most methodical preparation of all: His father copiously analyzes all previous National Spelling Bees, looking for patterns, as well as goes through the dictionary methodically.

National Spelling Bee contestants get no second chances; once a letter is uttered, it cannot be taken back. Slips of the tongue are no excuse -- early on, a kid asked to spell mayonnaise accidentally opens his mouth without thinking and utters an a, immediately realizing that he blew it. The suspense borders on sadistic -- a bell is rung when a contestant slips up and gets dismissed, but after a correct spelling, there's a pregnant pause. When it becomes clear that no bell has rung, the audience applauds, acknowledging that the spelling must be correct. Regis Philbin and Anne Robinson look like benevolent therapists in comparison to "official word pronouncer" Alex Cameron, a man who looks like a cross between radio commentator Dennis Prager and a bullfrog.

But back to the other competitors. We also meet Ted, who lives in a trailer and whose family keeps a cage full of peacocks in the backyard; Ashley, from inner-city Washington, D.C.; April, distinguished primarily by her cornball mom; Emily, who's also a singer and horse rider; and Harry, the aforementioned banns kid and the most stereotypical nerd of the bunch.

Whatever one's reservations might be about any of the individual eight subjects or the subject matter, they're quickly washed away -- you may not believe how tense a spelling competition can be to watch, but chances are you'll lose any traces of skepticism and get sucked in by film's end. Obviously, it helps that the contest is edited down to a digestible length. If you were ever an academically inclined type during your school days or even if you weren't and wondered how hard being a smart kid might be, you owe it to yourself to see Spellbound.

 
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