Who would have expected a spelling bee to furnish the raw material for the most suspenseful, profound, and deeply resonant thriller in months? Let's not mince words - sorry - Spellbound is the best movie of the summer, sweaty-palmed, thrilling, emotionally exhausting, edge-of-your-seat stuff that's more than the equal of those computer-generated car chases in The Matrix Reloaded or Wolverine throwdowns in X2: X-Men United. You can have Hulk hippity-hopping across Arizona. I'll take a kid with a Caesar haircut and no friends back in Missouri standing in a hotel conference room and staring down a wild “hellebore.”
If shock in Psycho was announced by the shriek of a thousand Bernard Herrmann violins, then Spellbound has the ding of a judge's bell. And I don't mean Hitchcock's Spellbound either, but this dinky new nail-biting documentary about eight children competing in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The funny thing is Hitchcock himself would have squirmed at the deceptively simple ways director Jeff Blitz wields that ding, the signal another speller has flubbed up. There will be 248 dings before one winner is left. But there are no special effects, no jump cuts. Just you and eight kids - who probably always get picked last in gym - standing before a microphone. The audience leans forward. These nerd Olympians listen for their word. When it comes, their faces freeze, and you tug at your hair. Their minds visibly race.
This is a true audience picture. At the mic these kids cringe, you cringe. Others go wide-eyed. A few weep quietly, some mutter. One sputtering boy from New Jersey brings the bee to a halt, trying to virtually squeeze letters from his brain. Another asks for the derivation of her word and the answer comes back: It's Botswanian. Your stomach sinks. When the theater next door has 2 Fast 2 Furious, I realize this sounds mundane. But trust me, it's nerve-racking waiting for a 12-year-old to leap the gap between the “h” and the “a” in “cephalalgia.” Director Blitz fills their pauses with the unnerving hum of hotel air conditioning.
Aptly, it means headache.
A 2002 Oscar nominee for best documentary (it should have won; Bowling For Columbine edged it out), Spellbound is a rare example of the form, one that hooks you and surprises you in the ways that great fiction does. If Blitz had just focused on the spelling bee itself, the film would be merely exciting. But in the first half we're introduced to these five girls and three boys, ages 12 to 15, from coast to coast, from different economic classes and races and nationalities, and what grabs you is how bright, strange, or lonely they all are. You like and care for every one - but it's a set-up. In the second half, Blitz sends them to Washington to compete in the championship, and then he knocks them off, harrowingly.
One by one.
What emerges isn't so much a film about competition as a movie that says more about America and how knowledge is freedom than any movie review can contain. My favorite was Angela, the first kid we meet. Before she was born, her parents crossed illegally from Mexico into Texas so their children could have a decent education. This daughter of parents who speak no English is the best speller in her corner of the universe. When she wins her regional competition, we see her father's eyes fill, and we realize spelling is her path to opportunity.
Blitz is extraordinarily skillful in the way he places these people within a context that gives their lives resonance. Nupur, from Tampa, Fla., is a second-generation Indian girl who patiently explains that America is a place where everyone gets a second chance. To get a sense of what these kids leave behind, her neighborhood Hooters sends her off with a well-wishing message on its sign:
“Congradu tions Nupur.”
You could not make this stuff up. Spellbound is gorgeous and generous filmmaking. Some of the kids' parents seem dumbfounded by their offspring's talents: April from Ambler, Pa., is the daughter of a father who owns a dusty bar and says gently that he's “not a real success story.” But April is wry and smart: “Besides studying, I like to ride roller coasters,” she says, “and I'm a vegetarian and I like to drink coffee.”
Some of these children have parents who drill them through hours of verbal workouts: Neil is the son of another Indian immigrant, a sports dad of a father who says, “There's no way you can fail in this country.” Of course he's wrong, but Blitz permits the father some grace and shows how he can be right - it's that insistent striving in the face of impossible odds that makes these children's and their parents' stories sing.
Ted is a hulk who lives in a trailer in the Ozarks; there's Harry, who talks like a robot; there's Emily, who lives in Connecticut and frets about taking her au pair to the nationals; and there's Ashley from D.C., whose mother sits smoking at the kitchen table, counting off obstacles her daughter has to overcome to get even a sliver of recognition. It's natural we root for Ashley, or any of the less privileged kids - they're often doing it for themselves, without Neil's team of language coaches, or Emily's brainy parents. But who we root for also becomes a kind of commentary on America. That memorization has as much to do with winning as comprehension - that the word thrown at them at that moment (the luck of the draw) can make them a champ - is another patch in this glorious, affectionate quilt. These kids need luck and pluck, and some of it rubbed off on Spellbound, an irresistible portrait of a complicated country in 90 scant minutes - and yes, I used Spellcheck on “irresistible.”