Thoroughly wonderful documentary that follows eight junior high school students from around the United States as they head for The National Spelling Bee Championship in Washington, DC. That these kids come from various ethnic and economic backgrounds is as significant as the fact that four of them have immigrant parents, for Spellbound is not only a portrait of kids in tension-filled competition, it's a gentle examination of the American Dream.
We are introduced, one by one, to each child and his or her family, and spend time with them as they feverishly prepare for the finals – many of them spending several hours a day memorizing thousands of words in dictionaries, encyclopedias, medical journals, and so on. While their backgrounds and goals vary wildly, their stories are uniformly touching. And despite the cute soundtrack and graphics, the film never condescends, which is imperative for it to work; after all, the one thing that these children have in common is that they are exceptionally bright, and they deserve a documentary that doesn't pander.
These are, in fact, all great kids, and Spellbound makes you care so much for them that as it heads into the Championship, you are biting your nails for each child to simply get through the assigned words without hearing that horrible "ding" that indicates a spelling error and, thus, elimination. Those of us who have competed in spelling bees (in eighth grade I blew the word "coercive") can especially sympathize.
Blitz is also blunt about his subjects' situation: most are, frankly, geeks, and they're aware that what makes them special also makes them misfits. The film touches on this, as well as on the larger picture – that distinctly American philosophy that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough, and how this philosophy affects gifted children and their families.
Blitz has accomplished what many independent filmmakers dream of: he's made the Great American Movie. I don't care what you think of documentaries. Catch Spellbound. It's delightful, absorbing, humanistic, and the most thrilling movie you will see all year.