Documentary features are often overlooked
by the movie watching public. It often seems dry and without the
high drama, intrigue, and big explosions of your average Hollywood
blockbuster. Such is not the case with Spellbound, a story
about eight teenagers competing in the National Spelling Bee. As
far as documentaries go, this is everything you could hope for. In
fact, as far as movies go, it's everything you could hope for.
the directorial debut of Jeffrey Blitz. Clearly, he has set the
bar very high for future documentaries about spelling bees.
Spelling bees are a big deal in this country. Apparently, nine
million children take part in spelling bees, but only 249 make it to the
National Spelling Bee.
What makes this film so great is that the filmmaker very clearly
tells us everything about each child. We see them in their study
routines. We see where they come from. We meet the parents.
We can relate to them, cheer for them, and empathize with them.
It's about family, it's about competition, it's about growing up, it's
The filmmaker manages to create a documentary that's more than just
people talking to the camera: in very subtle ways, the film is made with
the visuals. The shots of the various kids' home towns. The
houses they grow up in. The spelling mistakes in the
Not only do you find yourself rooting for your favorites, but hoping
for the kid you don't like to choke. The Masked Reviewer doesn't
approve of bullies, but...there's one kid in the film that everyone will
want to hang upside down and shake. He's a wedgie waiting to
You'll also be amazed that these kids can get so many words right.
There are words no one has ever heard of before. In fact, the
Masked Reviewer is pretty sure that they just made up words for the
competition. Quinquivixerous. Pujargesclieskion. Those
aren't words, but they'd be good for high Scrabble(tm) scores.
It's also interesting to see the process and "strategy" of the
spellers. There are rules, and the kids know them all. You can
start to spell a word, then pause. You can ask for definitions,
language of origin, and use of the word in a sentence. Once you
name a letter, you can't take it back.
The Masked Reviewer was quite a speller in his day. A little
tip for next year's beezies: you can try to read the faces of the judges
by naming certain letters in sneaky ways. For example, say the
word is EMBRYO. But you don't know if it's "AMBRYO", "IMBRYO", or
"UMBRYO". You walk up to the microphone, look right into the eyes
of the judges, and start off:
"A...definition of the word please." When you say "A",
see if they reach for the bell.
"I...would like the language of origin." Did they
"U...se the word in a sentence, please." Any sad head
The Masked Reviewer's spelling bee career ended in 8th grade.
The following is a transcript of the event.
"Your word is RIME."
"My word is SRIME?"
"You mean like a Chinese person ordering a
"That's not an
"You mean like, rhyme? Like a nursery
"RIME is a homophone
for RHYME. Your word is RIME, not RHYME."
"What? But those words rhyme.
You're saying my word, rime, rhymes with rhyme?"
"Could I have a definition of the word?"
"A coating of ice."
"A coating of ice. That's helpful.
Is it Norwegian in origin?"
"I don't know."
"Okay. But it's not rhyme, right?
I can spell that."
"Y are you giving me this
one? Can't I have another word?"
"Fine. RIME. R-I-Y-M. RIYM."
"I'm sorry that's
incorrect, the correct spelling is "R-I-M-E."
"That's what I said. I got it right!
"No it isn't."
"Yes it is."
"No, you spelled it
"Oh yeah, well spell this!"
Then it quickly deteriorated to mooning and flipping of fingers, and
the Masked Reviewer's spelling career was O-V-E-R.
Anyway. See Spellbound. It's funny at times,
touching at other times, and makes you think. It does everything a
good movie should do. Spellbound is G-R-A-T-E. You'll
enjoy it. Unless you can't spell, or you hate kids, or movies with
no explosions or fight scenes have no interest for you. But, as
far as documentaries go, it's top-notch. The only real negative
comment about the film is the sound. The sound was scratchy and
poppy (wasn't that a comedy duo in the Catskills?). Spellbound
will have you...uh...spellbound.
Expectation from the Title: A paranoid amnesiac gets a job in
a mental hospital, posing as a famous psychiatrist, who...oh
Mother's Rule (Always Say Something Good About Everything):
Kids say the darndest things.
The Pros: It's got it all...drama, suspense, clear characters,
simple plot, lots of spelling.
The Cons: The sound is scratchy and there's a lot of
background hissing. You filter it out, but it could've used a lot