Spellbound

Every four years, Olympics fans are treated to the aggravation of network coverage, where each tape-delayed event is preceded by syrupy profiles designed to goose up the drama around the no-name elite of the field. The mawkish segments are always the same: stories of struggle, sacrifice, and miraculous triumphs over adversity, shot in soft-focus autumnal tones and narrated by Bob Costas at his most earnest. The one thing conspicuously absent from Olympics coverage is the Olympics, which can be plenty dramatic on its own. A similar tension surrounds the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, where 250 nervous, over-parented kids are thrust into the spotlight and forced to spell words from the mustiest recesses of the English language. Following eight young contenders from across the country, widely varied in ethnicity and social status, Jeff Blitz's Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound can't help but be deeply engrossing, as it taps into a highly charged atmosphere that one parent dubs "a different form of child abuse." Yet Blitz errs by going the Olympics route: By spending the entire second half of the film at the bee in Washington, D.C., he leaves himself with only 45 minutes to hack together stories about his contenders, which isn't nearly enough time to delve into their idiosyncratic routines and home lives. The same large group allows him to draw some broad connections between the contestants, who are invariably outcast from their peers, and are frequently the sons and daughters of hard-working immigrants, fragile conduits of their parents' dreams. These kids and their families are fascinating subjects, but Blitz storms in and out of their homes in what seems like an afternoon apiece, collecting only enough footage to give the audience some rooting interest in the big show. Even in a short time, however, a few young minds make an indelible impression, including the self-taught daughter of a poor Mexican ranch-hand who doesn't speak English, an Indian boy whose father drills him on seven to eight thousand words per day, and a spastic runt with an odd sense of humor. (Pointing to the boom mic, he asks, "This thing isn't edible, is it?") As the eight subjects are winnowed down round by excruciating round, it's easy to get caught up in their uniquely gripping plight, when a single misplaced letter can spoil years of obsessive preparation. But then, the annual ESPN telecast of the final rounds offers the same effect and more, because the tension is sustained over several hours, with the furrowed looks of each contestant telling enough stories on their own. In style and content, Spellbound doesn't distinguish itself from the average TV newsmagazine–the ubiquity of home-schooling goes virtually unmentioned–but the surefire subject still bails it out most of the time.

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