Spell this! 

Review of Spellbound

Think Film/HBO Cinemax

Rated G Think Film/HBO Cinemax

Every summer one film leaps from art house obscurity to multiplex ubiquity. Last year it was My Big Fat Greek Wedding; other examples include The Blair Witch Project and The Brothers McMullen. It's a big deal because it shows Hollywood that a filmmaker can operate, as Rumsfeld might say, "on the cheap," and still compete with big-budget shlockbusters.

I'm not holding my breath, but this year I'd love the crossover hit to be Spellbound. To see it now you'll have to trek on up to the Mayan in Denver, but aside from the fact that it's a, gasp, documentary, there's no reason it shouldn't be in the multiplex. As much as I despise the term, this film actually is "fun for the whole family."

Spellbound is the story of eight kids competing for the 1999 national Scripps Howard Spelling Bee. The kids are a potpourri of America: urban and rural, black, white, Latino, Indian, boys and girls. It's not a sop to political correctness, merely a reflection of American diversity and the color blindness of competition.

Throwing our youth onto a national stage, replete with its ephemeral media frenzy is as American as turning a mechanical process like spelling into the nerd world series. Whether this is a good idea or a form of child abuse is a question one speller's parent raises early on and it lingers for the duration.

One undeniable fact is that the film is dominated by the children of immigrants. Cara DeGette writes in Public Eye (page 11) about a recent sprinkling of anti-immigrant hate literature around town. I received a note on my doorstep informing me that non-white immigrants are messy, breed rapidly and are out for "our" jobs and welfare benefits.

Seems they're out for our spelling bees too. Take Neil, a 12-year-old from San Clemente, Calif. His father, an Indian-born computer technician, plies his son with thousands of words a day. This in addition to tutors in three languages.

"There's no way you can fail in this country, if you're willing to work hard," he tells director Jeffrey Blitz, while offering a tour of the home he built with his brother. Such bootstrap testimony is the stuff of GOP campaign spots, but here it comes off as entirely heartfelt.

Then there's Angela Arenivar, a lanky, brace-faced Mexican-American girl who embodies the triumph of her family's struggle. Her father, Ubaldo, crossed the Mexican border via coyote and worked as a ranch hand in the Texas panhandle. Witnessing his first trip to the capital to see his daughter compete with the nation's best and brightest in a language he doesn't speak, it's apparent that Spellbound is about much more than spelling.

Part of the tension in this film is the byproduct of the make-or-break nature of a bee. As one speller's father observes, it's infinitely crueler than a sport like baseball in that it there are no second chances: one strike and you're out.

Alone onstage, facing down words like helioplankton and clavecin, it's impossible not to root for all of these kids. Watching victory dreams dashed by the quaint chime of a bell, it's easy to comprehend the pedagogical impulse to rub out competition altogether. But in America, it's inevitable and these kids put on a surprisingly strong face when their bell tolls.

Director Jeffrey Blitz milks the do-or-die stakes for all they're worth. Through low-angle close-ups, we watch in clenched terror as spellers sweat through the verbiage. In several instances, kids pull answers from thin air. When they finish there's a moment of heightened anxiety: Will the bell toll their doom? When it doesn't, it's as vicarious a delight as anything meted out on SportsCenter.

There's probably not much cross readership between this publication and National Vanguard Magazine, but perhaps our local Aryan revolutionaries might watch Spellbound and observe the determination of these messy, rapidly breeding immigrants. Competition requires us to step up to the plate and expose ourselves to failures large and small. It's an act that takes infinitely more courage than distributing propaganda by the cover of night.

-- John Dicker


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