What is it with Americans and competition? Here’s a country that can’t just be part of the world, it has to rule and police it, and when you get down to the individuals it’s often the same thing. You can’t just be good at something, you have to be the best. Take spelling: everyone should try to enrich their vocabulary and writing, for language, communication and intellectual growth are interconnected. But cramming as much words in your head as you can, not to understand what you read and hear better but just so you can be the “National Spelling Bee” champion? Only in America.
It’s apparently a pretty big deal, with not only schools but the general public and the media getting involved, with ESPN broadcasting live from the finals! Spelling’s not a sport, it’s not even about being smart. It’s “a fairly mechanical process”, visual memory and lucky guesses, too. Half the time the kids don’t even know the meaning of the words, so what’s the point? Still, even if you question the relevance of the event, “Spellbound” remains interesting as a snapshot of various types of children, parents and communities across the US.
There’s ANGELA, the daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants who barely speak English, NUPUR, who inherited her Indian parents’ work ethic, TED, who comes from a rural background where academics aren’t valued, EMILY, a Lisa Simpson-type overachiever, ASHLEY, an African-American girl from a poor neighbourhood full of crime and dropouts, NEIL, who’s intensely encouraged (pressured?) by his father, who believes that “you can’t fail [in America], if you work hard you’ll make it”, APRIL, who spends up to 9 hours a day studying, to the detriment of any potential social life, and HARRY, an obnoxiously talkative brat who seemingly filled his head with so much words that they’re constantly spilling out.
Many reviewers refer to this documentary as a pure “American Dream story”, pointing out how kids from all kinds of backgrounds are able to succeed through “diligence and hard work”. But what kind of “success” are we talking about? 15 minutes in the spotlight? A short-term ego boost? I mean, even if one of these kids wins the Bee, he’ll still be Black or poor or unpopular. Yet no matter how silly and pointless this competition can seem, it’s surprisingly engrossing. I guess you have to credit director Jeffrey Blitz’s keen sense of storytelling; I liked the music and the scene transitions used, and Blitz manage to make the actual Bee pretty suspenseful at times, as we realise that Blitz actually made us care about these dorks. If the competition grows repetitive and tiresome, taking up half of the 97 minute length in an unfortunate case of overkill, overall “Spellbound” is a fun watch and, for better or worse, it is indeed representative of America.