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Every year, middle
school kids across the country start memorizing words and competing in a
decades-old tradition: the spelling bee. They start at the school level,
then move on to the regional level if they're lucky -- and eventually,
the select few gather in our country's capital to compete for the
Howard-Scripps National Spelling Bee. Spellbound follows eight
contestants on their path to Washington, D.C. Nupur from Tampa,
eliminated in the third round of the previous year's Bee and diligently
working to do better now, notes that in America, she has an advantage
her Indian-born parents didn't growing up: the opportunity for a second
chance to succeed. Another Bee veteran is well-to-do Emily from New
Haven, who admits that she doesn't do it because she loves spelling, but
because she wants to prove that she's the best; later we meet shy April
from a working-class mill town in Pennsylvania, who credits her parents
with nurturing her love of words. Then there's Neil in California, whose
parents have analyzed past bee competitions to craft a rigorous training
regimen, and has a whole village in India who've been paid by a relative
to pray for his win (his sister insists he's the most well-rounded boy imaginable though).
Not all the kids have the advantage of money or parents who spend every
waking moment attending to their children's academic progress. In D.C.,
Ashley talks about overcoming her "trials and tribulations"
while her single mother admits that the economy has made their situation
hard. Angela in Texas, daughter of Mexican immigrants who speak no
English, has her friends sign her word flashcards so that when she
spells, she can imagine different people cheering her on. At the other
end of the preparation spectrum is Ted in Missouri, a loner who walks
into his regional bee without having ever heard of the Bee and finds
himself heading to Washington. And then there's Harry, an oddball
motor-mouth in New Jersey, who wins his regional spelling bee on the
word "discotheque" largely because he's the only kid uncool
enough to know what the word means. As the kids head to the National
Spelling Bee, the competition is clearly fierce. Each has worked hard,
but in the end, only one will walk away with the trophy.
We've all flipped by it on TV -- or maybe even participated it on
some level as kids. And when we think back upon it as adults, it all
seems so stupid. In this age of automatic spell-checking, being the best
speller in the world seems like a pretty useless skill. I went into Spellbound
expecting to be annoyed by these overly competitive kids and pushy
parents obsessing over memorizing. Instead, I found myself loving just
about every single one. There are rich kids and poor kids, kids who look
like they're probably pretty popular at school, and ones who you can
just tell get picked on interminably. But what they all share is that
they're pretty damn smart -- and really, really dedicated. Watching
Blitz's warm, very funny, and yes, totally thrilling documentary, it's
clear that for these kids and their parents, spelling really isn't the
point at all. It's about working hard to achieve something you want.
Watching Spellbound, you start to believe that the spelling bee
is as gloriously all-American a sport as baseball. As Neil's dad
insists, if you work hard in this country, you'll make it. While it's an
optimistic view, there's something quintessentially American about it --
this faith that any individual should be able to set a lofty goal, work
diligently, and achieve success, regardless of social, economic or
cultural background. —reviewed
by Yee-Fan Sun
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