By James Keller
Take six kids from all facets of American life, and from all corners of the United States. Six bright young minds, determined and focused, from every rung of the economic and social ladder. Find six likable kids, who you will empathize with and who, if you were ever to meet them in real life, you would certainly befriend. Then, follow them to the national spelling bee–six out of 249 contestants, all but one of which will lose in the next two days.
This is the premise behind Jeff Blitz’s debut documentary, as he and his crew follow the trail of six would-be American spelling champions. Spellbound gives a glimpse into the lives and minds of these kids, following them from their regional finals to the nationals and getting to know each along the way.
There’s Ashley, a witty, soulful 12 year-old African-American girl from a single-mother home in the Washington, D.C. Projects. There’s Angela, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. And then there’s Harry, a child who in any other situation would be written off as a hyperactive, distracting nuisance, yet makes an amazing spelling bee contestant all the same. The list goes on, with stories of tragedy and personal triumph.
The result is a beautifully filmed and wonderfully put together story that will draw you in, make you laugh and break your heart. Even though most of us have never been exposed to a spelling bee culture quite like the American experience, Canadian audiences needn’t worry about how accessible this film will be. While the competition, the technical aspects and the actual spelling (the skill of which will simply amaze you) take up a major part of the film, in many ways they are secondary. The real story here is the spellers–watching them go through this process of competition, preparation and, in most cases, disappointment.
In fact, the brilliant thing about Spellbound is that the spelling bee theme could have been any other situation, competition or otherwise. Blitz was aware that not everyone would quite "get" the spelling bee premise, perhaps not having been involved themselves.
First, dig deep. Show audiences the inner workings of the competition and the culture through the eyes of the contestants, their parents and even the announcer. Then, just to make absolutely sure your film won’t be lost on anybody and to ensure it will captivate even the most knowledgeable in the spelling bee circuit, craft a memorable, compelling story that would be impossible not to identify with.