Reviewer's Rating 4 out of 5   User Rating 4 out of 5
Spellbound (2003)
UContains one use of mild language

Here's a documentary with plenty of tears, trials and tribulattions. No wait, tribblations. Erm... TRIBULATIONS!

Set in the stressful world of America's National Spelling Bee championships, where 9 million children aged 12-14 compete for a place among 249 spellers in the live, televised final, Spellbound takes a hilarious look at one of America's best-loved institutions.

There's a cruel sense of Schadenfreude in watching these kids struggling to spell words - "cephalalgia", "logorrhea" - that they don't understand and will never use in real life. As they wrestle with the alphabet, their faces contort in such terror and agony, that you can't help but wonder, along with one of the film's interviewees, if this isn't some "different form of child abuse".

Like a sports day for geeks, the Spelling Bee is less about language then a celebration of that age-old American Dream of bettering one's self through hard graft. Reading against the grain of this voiceover-lite doc, though, Spellbound frequently looks like an ironic exposé of America's dunderheaded pursuit of self-advancement above all else.

It's the throwaway asides that offer the most telling commentary. Interviewing the spellers and their parents, director Jeff Blitz builds up a catalogue of unintentional howlers.

There's the trailer trash Brigham family ("The older boy lacks direction, I think the Marines would be good for him. He likes guns and explosives."), the doddering old ranch owners wittering on about the Mexican father of one of the competitors, who "ain't lazy like most wetbacks", and the brother of one eliminated contestant who valiantly maintains,"I still think he spelt it right".

Quite how aware Blitz is of his Oscar nominated film's subversive dissection of Middle American mores is a moot point. But from this side of the Atlantic it looks like yet more proof that the Land of the Free really doesn't know the meaning of irony. Let alone how to spell it.

Spellbound is released in UK cinemas on Friday 10th October 2003.

End Credits

Director: Jeff Blitz

Stars: Harry Altman, Ted Brigham Neil Kadakia, Emily Stagg

Genre: Documentary

Length: 96 minutes

Cinema: 2003

Country: USA

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