(director: Jeffrey Blitz; cinematographer: Jeffrey Blitz; editor: Yana Gorskaya; music: Daniel Hulsizer; cast: Harry Altman, Ted Brigham, Neil Kadakia, Emily Stagg, Angela Arenivar, April Degideo, Nupur Lala, Ashley White, Alex Cameron (Pronouncer); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: G; producers: Jeffrey Blitz/Sean Welch; Thinkfilm; 2002)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jeffrey Blitz’s fascinating documentary, an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature of 2002 (it lost to Bowling for Columbine–probably because not enough people saw it), captures the frenzy of the real life experiences of the 1999 National Spelling Bee through the stories of eight driven middle-school spellers who compete for the top prize of a trophy and $10,000. The first spelling bee was in 1925 and it has since become an annual springtime American rite where as many as nine million pupils from across the country compete in the regional matches and 249 get into the nationals, a two day event, held in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C.. The final day of the contest even has ESPN televising it, as if the competition there was equal to a sporting event. Their journeys elicit cheer, heartbreak, and empathy and verify that the American Dream is still very much in play. All the spellers and their families were painted in a sympathetic light, as it was easy to cheer for each in this diverse group of achievers. What they had in common was good family support and a terrific work ethic. Blitz does a good job of staying out of the way and letting the spellers and their family members do all the talking. No matter what one might think of the educational value of such a competitive contest and the unwarranted stress, one parent calls it a form of child abuse, the spellers nevertheless had a good attitude about learning and good-naturedly understood that not only hard work but luck was also a big factor in winning the spelling bee.
The youngsters the documentary keys in on are all likable, of varied races and socioeconomic places, and are from different parts of the country. It was hard not to root for them all to win. Angela is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who do not speak English and are proud to the point of revealing on camera happy tears regarding their daughter’s academic achievements. The father is pictured as a hard-working Perryton, Texas ranch foreman, who came to this country so his children could get a good education and have more opportunities in life. Nupur’s family is from India and settled in Tampa, Florida. She’s an excellent student and violin player, who lost in the nationals the year before and, like all the others, works hard studying the dictionary every day. In one amusing scene, her hometown Hooters honors her but ironically holds up a sign that is misspelled — “Congradutions Nupur.” Emily’s parents are the wealthiest of the group, but they’re so nice that you don’t hold that against rooting for this special girl as opposed to rooting only for those less privileged. She has equestrian lessons and traveled to the nationals last time with her au pair. Emily’s a sweet, charming, sensitive, poised and very bright student. Her parents have a loving relationship with her and help keep her spirits up. Ashley is an African-American from the inner-city of Washington, D.C., who is the oldest child of a supportive single mom. Her school teacher calls her the perfect child. Because of her poor urban background and attending school in a decaying educational system the sweet girl is very much an underdog in this field, whose best hope is that she believes in the power of prayer. Ted is a low-key athletic looking youth from a rural area in the Ozarks of Missouri and has a genius IQ. His laid-back peacock raising parents exert no pressure and are pleased with his mental prowess. The quiet Ted seems adrift in an isolated part of the country where physical prowess is looked on with more respect than education. Harry is the irresistible jokester from the Glen Rock suburbs of north New Jersey. He’s amusing, dorky, and intense, and makes priceless facial contortions showing up his braces as he battles with a word he’s unfamiliar with that has a Catholic meaning — ‘banns.’ April is a sweet and earnest youngster, whose easy-going but pessimistic Ambler, Pennsylvania father owns a dumpy bar. He and his wife give their heartfelt support to April without putting pressure on her. Neil is an articulate and intelligent child of Orange County, upscale San Clemente, California, wealthy parents who came here from East India. The father believes in the American Dream and that anyone who works hard can succeed in this country. The father also believes in the power of religion, as he recruits people from his ancestral hometown to pray for his son’s victory. Thank God prays bought in that way don’t necessarily work. But aside from that tacky tactic and the hiring of various language tutors, the father is a good sport and his take on the importance of education is one that more parents should pay attention to. Though of all the parents, his high-pressure methods has his son appearing less joyful and more robotic than the others.
The contest was surprisingly suspenseful, much like reading Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” It makes it fun to try and pick the winner to see who will be the last one standing. All their stories were moving, and it’s easy to see how their experience at the spelling bee will give them something to remember all their life and this experience should only help their growth process. Though some of the things they did to prepare seemed excessive and not really much of an educational benefit but was more to outdo others, nevertheless however much the spellers went astray in their studies education was still their main focus. There are so many young people nowadays who have turned away from using words and do so many harmful activities that can be anti-social, that it was refreshing to see this group devote themselves to working hard and trying to make something useful out of their lives. It has been my experience that the only interesting people I meet, all work hard and are always striving to learn more.
The last word spelled correctly was ‘logorrhea,’ and by that time we realized that the humble winner and the gracious losers were really all winners. All the spellers featured seem to have bright futures. It felt really good to see such an inspiring look at real children, and how richer their lives are because they value education above less trivial pursuits. Isn’t it because of the opportunities through education (whether public, private or home-based), that America has grown to be a great country and the underprivileged have been able to rise above their station in life? This documentary only affirms that is still true, even though the contest itself might be considered by some educators as more of a trivial pursuit than necessarily a true learning experience.
REVIEWED ON 7/12/2003 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/