And Then There Was One
"My life is like a movie -- there are trials and tribulations, and then I triumph," declares one of the remarkable youngsters featured in Spellbound, a documentary with as much suspense as any thriller from Alfred Hitchcock. While watching eight intrepid contestants on their journey to become the National Spelling Bee champion, I experienced fear and frustration right along with them.
Filmmaker Jeff Blitz admits inspiration for his riveting documentary stemmed from a love of old mystery movies he watched on television while growing up. He borrowed heavily from And Then There Were None, a film based on an Agatha Christie story about a group of people from various backgrounds who visit an old mansion and are killed off one by one.
Blitz chose his cast of characters to represent a melting pot of nationalities and classes. The girls competing include: a highly motivated daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants who settled in Texas; the feisty oldest daughter of a single mother living in the Washington, D.C. projects; a New Haven youngster who enjoys equestrian practice as well as spelling; a self-effacing lover of words whose retired father owns the "Easy Street" bar; and a determined young lady who's back for more after being eliminated in the previous National Spelling Bee.
The film also follows three boys on their quest to be the last speller standing -- a studious East Indian lad living with his wealthy parents on the San Clemente coast, an intelligent Missouri student trying to find his place in a junior high school where the most valued prowess is basketball skill, and a wiry jokester whose facial gymnastics rival Jim Carrey's funniest expressions.
Who will win? It's difficult to pick a favorite. Each child is so fascinating. And, while watching their families, I couldn't help empathizing with most of them because of their sacrifices and supportive behavior. Do some parents go too far? Perhaps. Paying people to chant and pray for a son's victory might be a bit questionable. But, hey, that just adds to the drama. All's fair in love and spelling.
Nominated for Best Documentary at the 2002 Academy Awards (Bowling for Columbine received the Oscar), Spellbound delivers a meaningful message about pursuit of the American Dream. Many of the 200-plus spellers who made it to the National Spelling Bee are from first-generation families. Blitz (whose mother is from Argentina) calls their desire to achieve "understandable, astonishing, and sometimes bittersweet." His admiration for their belief in the value of diligence and labor, the immigrant work ethic that built America, comes through loud and clear in this wonderful documentary.
(Released by ThinkFilm, Inc. and rated "G" for general audiences.)