One cannot help but be spellbound by the high drama in this simply photographed and straightforward documentary about finding the American Dream in the dictionary.
How many of us know the meaning of, never mind how to spell opsimath, logorrhea, cephalalgia, pococurante, prospicience and succedaneum?
Who would have thought that following eight young school children as they prepare for, and compete in a national spelling bee could be so riveting? Director Jeffrey Blitz did. His saga of hardworking and ambitious middle-schoolers captivates and touches its audience as it draws parallels among the boys and girls whose backgrounds could not be more different.
Some are optimistic and confident while others are more wary and unsure, but all share a similar work ethic and the desire to win. In just about every case, the contestants profiled also have supportive parents devoted to their child’s success and at least one dedicated teacher helping them along.
Nine million schoolchildren from all over the USA competed locally, and from those 249 qualified for the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington. The filmmakers chose an interesting cross-section on which to focus. Angela, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant ranch hand, lives in a Texas town and has a self-possession and down-to-earth sunniness that belies her family’s economic struggles. At the other end of the spectrum, Neil and his wealthy Indian family live in a sprawling home on a California beach. Ashley, from inner-city Washington, turns to prayer to help reach her goals. Nupur, a soft-spoken girl in oversize glasses, is drawn to the competition, her father says, because “she’s always liked big words.”
The ability to spell, though seemingly an old-fashioned pursuit and a skill that computers have rendered non-essential is made suspenseful for audiences and academically valuable for the contestants. For some of them just competing fulfils a family dream and provides the opportunity to transcend poverty.
It is refreshing to see boys and girls between 12 and 14 engage in purely intellectual pursuits and the gentle sometimes whimsical style of the filmmakers is perfectly appropriate to the subject.
You can’t help but choose favourites and cheer them on. Not only does the film offer a glimpse of a rarefied world but also it allows audiences to get to know these exceptional youngsters and their families.
The film is about chasing the American Dream, getting ahead, improving your position in society and becoming somebody in a society that appears to offer infinite promise. The parents, though determined are far removed from the obsessive mothers and fathers who push their children in sports or show business.
The film is also very funny, in particular the kindly response of a Jewish mother from New Jersey whose son had failed at a late stage to spell ‘banns’, which she considers an obscure gentile word. ‘I feel sorry for the boy from Texas who got “yenta”,’ she remarks. When contestant Nupur Lala, whose parents came from India, returns home she’s a local hero, and a restaurant puts up a sign saying “Congradulations, Nupur!”
Jeffrey Blitz | USA | 2002 | 97 minutes | U