Spellbound: A Documentary of the 1999 National Spelling Bee

This was the official website for the 2002 documentary film called Spellbound.

Release date: April 30, 2003 (New York City)

Director: Jeffrey Blitz

Screenplay: Jeffrey Blitz

Music composed by: Daniel Hulsizer

Cast: Emily Stagg, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, More

Genres: Documentary | Comedy | Thriller

Awards: News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Arts and Culture Programming

Storyline

This documentary follows 8 teens and pre-teens as they work their way toward the finals of the Scripps Howard national spelling bee championship in Washington D.C. All work quite hard and practice daily, first having to win their regional championship before they can move on. Interviews include the parents and teachers who are working with them. The competitors not only work hard to get to the finals but face tremendous pressure as the original group of over 250 competitors is whittled down and the words they must spell get ever more difficult. Written by garykmcd

Reviews

 

Fact More Compelling than Fiction

13 March 2004 | by Roland E. Zwick (United States)

If you need proof that fact is indeed more compelling than fiction, look no further than `Spellbound,' a fascinating and aptly named documentary centered on that great American competition for brainiacs known as the National Spelling Bee.

In designing his film, director Jeffrey Blitz has chosen to focus on eight competitors from widely varying racial, geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds, interviewing them and their families before, during and after the competition. In the first half of the film he introduces us to each of the contestants, giving us behind-the-scenes glimpses into their home lives, their study techniques, their aspirations and their attitudes towards competition and the value of dedication and hard work. The common denominators these eight individuals all share are intelligence, drive, determination and a supportive family structure. Even though the pressure of the experience seems almost too much for any youngster to bear, all of these participants come across as levelheaded, sensible individuals who manage to keep it all in a healthy perspective. The parents, too, seem reasonable in their expectations, encouraging their children without placing undue pressure on them – and beaming with justifiable pride at their amazing progeny. Yet, for all their seeming `nerdness' and gift for articulation, Blitz makes it clear that these kids are really just kids (albeit highly gifted ones) after all.

In the second half of the film, we move to the competition itself, watching as all except one of the people we have come to know over the course of the film eventually become eliminated (Blitz had the grand good fortune of choosing the eventual winner as one of his subjects). The scenes at the competition itself provide more edge-of-the-seat suspense than a truckload of fictional Hollywood thrillers. You'll find your mind and heart racing as each child endeavors to spell out the arcane, tongue-tying words chosen by the officials for the competition. Throughout the proceedings, the audience is on as much of an emotional roller coaster as the participants and their families. As a filmmaker, Blitz knows that the human face is really a map revealing what is taking place inside our hearts and minds and this he captures with uncanny precision as the children sweat, tear up, furrow their brows and even in some cases act out their thought processes in humorously absurd muggery while formulating their answers. 

`Spellbound' succeeds in its twofold purpose: to honor that commitment to competition that has defined what it means to be an American and to demonstrate that achieving in a competitive field using one's mind can be just as exciting and rewarding as achieving one's greatness on a court, field or gridiron. That's a message all too rarely conveyed by American culture.

Watching this film, you will indeed be spellbound.

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*** Roger Ebert

May 16, 2003   |  

The Spellers: Harry Altman, Ted Brigham, Neil Kadakia, Emily Stagg, Angela Arenivar, April Degideo, Nupur Lala, Ashley White

It is useful to be a good speller, up to a point. After that point, you're just showing off. The eight contestants in "Spellbound," who have come from all over the country to compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee, are never likely to need words such as "opsimath" in their daily rounds, although "logorrhea" might come in handy. As we watch them drilling with flashcards and worksheets, we hope they will win, but we're not sure what good it will do them.

And yet for some of them, winning the bee will make a substantial difference in their lives--not because they can spell so well, but because the prizes include college scholarships. Take Angela Arenivar, for example. She makes it all the way to the finals in Washington, D.C., from the Texas farm where her father works as a laborer. He originally entered the country illegally, still speaks no English, and is proud beyond all words of his smart daughter.

We cheer for her in the finals, but then we cheer for all of these kids, because it is so easy to remember the pain of getting something wrong in front of the whole class. None of these teenagers is good only at spelling. Jeffrey Blitz takes his documentary into their homes and schools, looks at their families and ambitions, and shows us that they're all smart in a lot of other ways--including the way that makes them a little lonely at times.

Consider Harry Altman. He is a real kid, but has so many eccentricities that he'd be comic relief in a teenage comedy. His laugh would make you turn around in a crowded room. He screws his face up into so many shapes while trying to spell a word that it's a wonder the letters can find their way to the surface. High school cannot be easy for Harry, but he will have his revenge at the 20th class reunion, by which time he will no doubt he a millionaire or a Nobel winner, and still with that unlikely laugh.

To be smart is to be an outsider in high school. To be seen as smart is even worse (many kids learn to conceal their intelligence). There is a kind of rough populism among adolescents that penalizes those who try harder or are more gifted. In talking with high school kids, I find that many of them go to good or serious movies by themselves, and choose vulgarity and violence when going with their friends. To be a kid and read good books and attend good movies sets you aside. Thank God you have the books and the movies for company--and now the Internet, where bright teenagers find one another.

In "Spellbound," which was one of this year's Oscar nominees, Blitz begins with portraits of his eight finalists and then follows them to Washington, D.C., where they compete on ESPN in the bee, which was founded years ago by the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. The ritual is time-honored. The word is pronounced, and repeated. It may be used in a sentence. Then the contestant has to repeat it, spell it and say it again.

We've never heard most of the words (cabotinage?). General spelling rules are useful only up to a point, and then memory is the only resource. Some of these kids study up to eight hours a day, memorizing words they may never hear, write or use. Even when they think they know a word, it's useful to pause and be sure, because once you get to the end of a word you can't go back and start again. You don't win because of your overall score, but because you have been perfect longer than anyone else; the entire bee is a sudden-death overtime.

Oddly enough, it's not tragic when a kid loses. Some of them shrug or grin, and a couple seem happy to be delivered from the pressure and the burden. One girl is devastated when she misspells a word, but we know it's because she knew it, and knew she knew it, and still got it wrong. They're all winners, in a way, and had to place first in their state or regional contests to get to Washington. When the finalist Nupur Lala, whose parents came from India, returns home to Florida, she's a local hero, and a restaurant hails her on the sign out in front: "Congradulations, Nupur!"

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Unplugged Review

This Oscar-nominated documentary follows eight teens and their families as they prepare for compete in the national spelling bee. Not to be confused with the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title about an amnesiac who holds the key to an unsolved murder, this Spellbound is an Oscar-nominated, 97-minute documentary about young people with exceptional memories who hold the key to questions such as “How do you spell ‘peptidoglycan’?” Every year, 9 million students participate in spelling bees—249 regional champs advance to the annual World Series of spelling in Washington, D.C. Only one wins. And all it takes to be eliminated is one misspoken letter. Talk about pressure. This film follows eight bright, driven, decent teens from diverse backgrounds as they (and their parents) compete for the grand prize in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Although it was edged out for Oscar, it won six top awards for documentary filmmaking in 2003.

 

POSITIVE ELEMENTS

Perseverance, discipline and a strong work ethic are virtues common to all eight spellers. They study hard, spending hours memorizing the dictionary, working with tutors and preparing for success. When we first meet Angela, a sweet girl raised in the inner city and forced to compete without the extra help lavished upon the wealthier Neil, she says with a smile, “My life is like a movie because I go through different trials and tribulations and then I finally overcome.” Neil’s immigrant father credits hard work as the key to achieving the American Dream, refusing to have an attitude of entitlement, “What is valuable in life that is easy to achieve?” Ted says, “I don’t think I’ll win, but I’ll try hard anyways. It will be fun either way, though.” While some competitors are a bit more passionate about getting the gold trophy than others, all have a healthy attitude toward the tournament as it relates to their self-worth. Without exception, the parents are loving and supportive without being obnoxious. When their kids are eliminated, moms and dads are ready with a hug and words of encouragement. Some parents want more for their children than they’ve experienced in life, and do what they can to help them excel. Even those adults who look at their own lives and careers as mundane or substandard have proven themselves successes by raising these fine children. None are bitter or poor sports. All have good heads on their shoulders, keeping competition in perspective and having fun along the way. One girl says after bowing out, “I already feel like a champion just getting here. I think that’s enough because a lot of people don’t even accomplish that.” That’s a typical reaction. And because the filmmakers obviously agree that they’re all winners, we get a sympathetic, victorious take on each child’s experience rather than some sensationalistic invasion into people’s pain or bitterness (in other words, Jerry Springer would have no use for these folks). Visits with past champions are sweet and insightful during a brief, historical retrospective.

 

SPIRITUAL CONTENT

Ashley talks of praying a lot and refers to herself as a “prayer warrior.” Neil’s family is Hindu, and we see the 12-year-old meditating before a homemade altar. We learn that his grandfather has paid people back in India to pray and chant around the clock for Neil while he’s in Washington. Late in the film, we meet 11-year-old George Thampy, a home-schooled born-again Christian introduced as a favorite to win the national competition. He signs an autograph, prefacing his signature with “trust in Jesus.” His father says, “This country needs godly values. We are in a bankrupt society in regard to principles and character.” Cut to his home church in Missouri where we hear the preacher talking about the value God places on a young man honoring his parents. George notes his three keys to success: “Trust and belief in Jesus, honoring your parents and hard work.”

 

CONCLUSION

Our culture has become fascinated with unscripted, “reality TV.” But most of what airs on the networks is cynical and corrupt. The calculating, cutthroat, every-man-for-himself competitiveness of Survivor. How Joe Millionaire deceives women and watches their catty competition for a stud they only think is rich. It’s enough to make someone swear off the genre altogether. But let’s not forget that, before there was Temptation Island, there were documentary filmmakers, many of whom actually have an affection for the people they train their cameras on. For families sick and tired of scandalous reality shows that exploit immorality and social cruelty, and pander to the lowest common denominator, a documentary like Spellbound will be a breath of fresh air.

 

If the notion of watching a teenager sweat over the correct spelling of “banns” sounds about as exciting as watching an ice cube melt, don’t write it off too quickly. You’ll be missing out on a small treasure. Spellbound is a lot more engaging than a movie about dictionary memorization has any right to be, primarily because everyone onscreen is so easy to root for. We feel badly that any of these likable kids has to lose, yet find encouragement in the way these families handle defeat. There are lessons here for students and parents, whether a teen is driven to excel at spelling, sports or the arts. How can one invest so much in a pursuit without letting that goal become the sum of who they are? Excellent films such as Chariots of Fire and Searching for Bobby Fischer tell true stories one way. Spellbound does it in another. Unscripted. Raw. Dramatic. A good-hearted nail-biter worth renting.

 

 

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Review Date: January 20, 2004

***** Review of Spellbound

by Nell Minow

Parents need to know that Spellbound is a documentary that follows eight kids from different socioeconomic and geographic areas as they prepare for the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. It has some tense and sad scenes; kids are upset when they lose (they're escorted onstage to a "comfort room"). One child uses a mild potty word. The film has great messages about working hard, self-acceptance, and always doing your best. The spellers are smart, funny, ambitious, brave, and dedicated; their parents are supportive and proud of their kid

Every family should see this m-a-r-v-e-l-o-u-s documentary, because it is about so much more than the spelling bee. It's about the strength of American diversity and the commitment of this country to opportunity. It's about ambition, dedication, and courage. It's about finding a dream that speaks to each individual. Most of all, it's about family; the opportunity to discuss the wide variation in styles of family communication and values is in itself a reason for every family with children to watch this movie together.

 

Plus, it is one of the most genuinely thrilling, touching, and purely enjoyable movies of the year. The movie is filled with brilliantly observed moments that illuminate the lives of the individuals but also the lives of all families and dreamers. As we watch these kids, girls towering over boys, more kids with braces than without, puberty's uneven effects everywhere, many of the kids confessing that they feel all alone in their schools, we see them hold on to this mastery of words eclipsing the mastery of most adults -- and leading them to their adult selves.

 

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SPELLBOUND

Review: documentaryfilms.net

It sounds like the title of a Hitchcock movie. (In fact, it was: the 1945 Ingrid Bergman-Gregory Peck psychological thriller.) In reality, more than half a dozen films have carried this title since 1916, but the 2002 “Spellbound” is both more quotidian (“bound by spelling” as well as “headed for the spelling bee”) and the most refreshing: It’s about the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.

 

Director Jeffrey Blitz and his team follow 8 kids between 10 and 14 as they progress from their respective home towns to Washington, DC for the big one. (They originally shot 13 kids, but narrowed their scope to arrive at a very full 95-minute run time.)

 

The contestants are:

Angela Arenivar, a gangly, tin-grinning brunette and daughter of Mexican laborers who paid a coyote $500 to spirit them across the border many years before, from Perryton, Texas;

Nupur Lala, the daughter of immigrants from India and veteran of the 1998 national spelling bee (she dropped out in the third round), who plays violin, from Tampa, Florida;

Ted Brigham, a big, soft-spoken math lover from Rella, Missouri;

Emily Stagg, a suburban horse rider and singer in a girls chorus who placed tenth in the 1998 national, from New Haven, Connecticut;

Ashley White, a roly-poly black girl with a brilliant smile from the poor part of urban DC;

Neil Kadakia, another child of Indian immigrants who lives well and trains hard for the bee in San Clemente, California;

April DeGideo, the daughter of a former factory worker, now pub owner in Amber, Pennsylvania; and

Harry Altman, an endearingly wired jokester who talks like a musical robot and picks out the National Anthem on the electric guitar, from Glen Rock, New Jersey.

Obviously the filmmakers have an impressively multicultural mix of kids. We get a couple minutes to meet each child in his or her home environment/town, with an appearance by parents and siblings, which is just enough to make us wish every one of them could win. Although the point is not stressed, it looks like there are two single-parent households as well as several newly-minted American families.

 

It’s a sports competition of a different sort: the heroes are nerds and loners, though all but possibly one come across as fairly well adjusted, and the contest ends with no discernible bitterness among the unsuccessful contestants. You don’t get the sense that, unlike high school football stars, any of these kids will look back on this period as the happiest time of their lives.

 

“Spellbound” is also a celebration of American values, a sort of straight version of Christopher Guest’s loving American satires (e.g., “Waiting for Guffman”). Several immigrant families perform the rite of praising the land of opportunity and equality; Angela gets a parade, TV coverage, even cheerleaders, after winning her regional bee; a mother says this competition is the one place where her kid is welcomed, appreciated, just one of the crowd.

 

Again, though a couple of the kids put in an unbelievable amount of work and training to prepare for the national bee, none of the parents seems obnoxiously pushy, just wonderfully supportive, and several are loveably kooky. You can’t help adoring them even as you laugh at them.

 

The filmmakers keep this sizable cast reasonably straight for the viewer with repeated screenings of a “poster” of eight vertical portraits from which kids are removed as they miss a word in the national. The pleasant and unintrusive music by Daniel Hulsizer consists largely of a xylophone and harmonica duo, with an acoustic guitar strumming in sometimes.

 

Blitz, Welch, and their cameras don’t miss the many small opportunities for laughs. An earnest small businessman talks about supporting the local girl who has done good: turns out he runs a Hooters, and their sign reads “Congradul tions Nupur.” Similarly, a local booster sign wishes good luck to “chapm” Ted. After one of the kids chokes in the national, a sibling declares: “If I had blood pressure it would have rocketed sky-high!”

 

One of the biggest laughs of the movie comes in the middle of some short interviews with past winners, from the very first champ, 1925’s Frank Neuhauser, through Gidget-y Paige Kimble, the blonde 1981 champ and current director of the bee. But it’s Jonathan Knisely, the 1971 winner, who admits: “I don’t think [winning] really helped me in my love life – my nascent love life. I mean, something like that could be considered something of a liability.”

 

Editor Yana Gorskaya gets to have fun shuffling through reaction shots: a series of kids exulting as they leave the mike after getting a dicey one right, a cascade of fallen faces as the “wrong” bell dings them out of the running, various looks of befuddlement and tension as children encounter an unfamiliar word. (The deer-in-the-headlights shock of the girl who hears “chateaubriand” is priceless.)

 

This is truly a movie for the whole family. Grownups brought their children to the screenings my wife and I saw separately in Portland, and the audiences gasped, groaned, and cheered far more than at most of the CGI-drunken summer blockbusters we’ve seen in recent years.

 

As a matter of marketing, it appears the makers of “Spellbound” have done just about everything right to shepherd their baby to the audience it so richly deserves. First, they did the rounds of film festivals for a good year, premiering at the South by Southwest in March 2002, traveling to the Tribeca in May, Los Angeles in June, Toronto in September, and landing a useful Oscar nomination. There followed Palm Springs in January 2003, Portland in February, Philadelphia in April, New York City at the end of the same month, and finally a quiet opening for general release at the beginning of May. An enthusiastic story on National Public Radio later that month surely helped.

 

As of mid June 2003, it looks like “Spellbound” is developing a healthy momentum on word of mouth. Starting at barely $23,000 its first week, box office grosses have at least doubled nearly every subsequent week, so that by June “Spellbound” had had its first million-dollar week. Maybe not “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” success, but for a little independent documentary, it’s the same sort of nerdy, come-from-behind performance it celebrates.

 

 

David Loftus

dloft59@earthlink.net

At the age of 17, David Loftus took second in the 1976 Oregon State Spelling Contest. He aced “existentialism,” “irascible,” “subpoena,” “apothecary,” “manumit,” “paraphernalia” (a word he had to write many times 12 years later as a police reporter, as in “drug paraphernalia”), “gaiety,” and “phlegm,” but – it was not a sudden death competition – missed “chlorophyll” and “millenary,” among others.

David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com

Credits

Jeffrey Blitz – Director, Producer, Cinematographer

Sean Welch – Producer, Sound

Ronnie Eisen – Associate Producer

Yana Gorskaya -- Editor

Peter Brown, Joe Dzuban – Sound post-production

Daniel Hulsizer – Original Music

2002, 95 minutes

 

Awards

2002 Best Documentary Feature, South by Southwest Film Festival

2002 Maverick Award, Best Documentary, Woodstock Film Festival

2002 Golden Maile Award, Best Documentary, Hawaii International Film Festival

2003 Best Film, Cleveland International Film Festival

2003 Best First Film, Best Documentary, Audience Award, Portland International Film Festival

2003 Oscar Nomination, Best Documentary, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences

 

 

 

 

SpellboundMovie.com