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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Spellbound (2002)

"Somehow or other in America...spelling has always been a community process."
- Dr. Alex J. Cameron, official pronouncer, National Spelling Bee

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 18, 2004

Stars: Angela, Nupur, Ted, Emily, Ashley, Neil, April, Harry
Director: Jeffrey Blitz

Manufacturer: Asset Digital
MPAA Rating: G
Run Time: 01h:36m:39s
Release Date: January 20, 2004
UPC: 043396030411
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

If ever there were a DVD review to test the limits of my spell-check program, it's this one. Perhaps you've seen some footage from the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee on ESPN, where it's a programming oddity sucking up a few hours; or maybe you've seen the obligatory piece on the local news, about the geeky kid who won the competition, by knowing how to spell some insanely arcane word like "cephalalgia." Who are these children, and what is this odd academic public torture to which they're submitting themselves? That's the subject of this appealing and good-hearted documentary, which is worth a look even if you confuse "their" and "there."

The central event is the 1999 incarnation of the bee, and the film breaks down pretty neatly into two halves. In the first, we meet eight of the competitors, rising through the ranks in their local newspaper-sponsored bees, and we learn a little about each of them, in smart, well-edited portraits. Angela is from a small Texas town, and her father, a Mexican immigrant, speaks no English; Ted, from Missouri, pretty much has no friends; Emily, from New Haven, spends her time riding and singing (when she's not spelling), and last year, went to the national bee with the au pair. All these kids take their spelling very seriously, and each has a slightly different studying tactic—Neil seems to be the only one with stage parents, hiring coaches and drilling their son with up to eight thousand words a day; Ashley, from Washington D.C., has a mother who beams with pride about her little girl winning the citywide competition: "That was the happiest moment of my life." The filmmakers interview each child's teacher, too, and do a great job of situating these kids in their contexts, giving us a way to remember them, and moving on to the next.

And the second half is of course the national competition itself, in our nation's capital, a hotel ballroom full of anxious middle schoolers and their even more anxious parents. The pressure on these kids is extraordinary, and you realize that most of it is self-generated; the only children this young who garner this sort of attention so early in their lives are gymnasts and ice skaters and tennis players, for whom the financial rewards are considerably greater. (First prize in the spelling bee: a $10,000 scholarship.) The whole exercise becomes something of a metaphor for America, too—this is a melting pot in the best sense, and the ferocity of competition has the virtue both of rewarding intelligence and allowing the laissez-faire system to play itself out. Many of the spellers are children of immigrants, and you get the sense that it's not baseball that's going to make them feel rooted in America, but knowing how to spell "laicize."

You'll probably be struck with how obscure so many of these words are; knowing how to spell "lycanthrope" or "logorrhea" or "encephalon" is no more a measure of one's intelligence than the ability to solve a crossword puzzle, but it's amazing the vast amount of (basically useless) information these kids know. And it's also a reminder at just how appalling the general level of spelling is in this country—each community is proud of their respective spellers, and one Hooters owner shows that respect by putting up good wishes on the restaurant's billboard: "Congradulations!" Similarly, as hot as Neil's parents are to get their son to win—they hire tutors in French, Spanish, and German, so Neil will know the root languages as well—Dad isn't doing him any favors by mispronouncing words like "epitome."

For most of us, spelling a word wrong isn't a crushing blow; but then, most of us aren't on ESPN. But the competition itself is something of a celebration, with slightly dorky kids in an environment where their dorkiness is rewarded, where they find a camaraderie, a sense that it's cool to be smart, that you don't have to be a quarterback or a cheerleader to be worthy of attention. By the end of the film, you'll find yourself with a profound emotional attachment to some of these kids, and you'll relish their triumphs, and be crushed when that hated bell rings for them; you'll probably pick out your own personal favorite. (I was rooting hard for Ashley.) The documentarians have tracked down some previous winners, too, including the first champ, from 1925, and all the past best spellers seem like decent folk. Still, most of the rest of us are going to feel a little bit stupid, stumped on words that eighth graders can rattle off in their sleep. Then again, I think I can die happy even if I'm still unsure about the proper spelling of "apocope."

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Production values aren't incredibly high, but the transfer is a pretty clean one; things can look a little grainy, but the print looks pretty clean here.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Balance can be a little askew, especially when we're looking at one thing, hearing interview footage from somewhere else, and catching a bit of musical scoring, as well; and there's a bit of buzzing, endemic to this kind of on-the-fly shooting. But you'll miss little if anything on the audio track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Winged Migration, The Endurance
3 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Sean Welch, Jeff Blitz, Yana Gorskaya, Peter Brown
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 00h:58m:28s

Extra Extras:
  1. updates on the spellers
  2. DVD credits
Extras Review: The director, producer, editor, and supervising sound editor are together for an informal and informative commentary track. The idea for the project came when director Jeff Blitz, just out of film school, was channel grazing, and saw the spelling bee on ESPN; everybody involved with the film seems to have a great affection for these kids and their families. The filmmakers are also clearly veterans of the festival circuit, as they've got their stories down; especially interesting is a discussion about the disproportionately high number of children of Indian extraction who participate in these bees.

Also included is a package (24m:25s) of sequences on three kids whose stories didn't make the final cut—the first rough assembly was close to three hours(!). You'll also find updates on the eight profiled spellers, who are now in high school and college; bios on the kids and a few members of the production team; and weblinks to an educational guide, and to an interactive Hangman game, which, embarrassingly, stumped me more than a few times.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

You'd have to be D-U-M dumb not to enjoy Spellbound, a smart and compassionate documentary that's sort of like Willie Wonka for the Mensa set. Can you use it in a sentence, please?


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