I missed it at the Wisconsin Film Festival, having chosen instead to see the excellent yet brutally sad film about Rwanda, 100 Days. I missed it when it was playing at the Hilldale theater, because I'm dumb, and not as fond of that theater as I should be. I saw that it was going to be playing at the Memorial Union Film Circle in a few weeks, and planned to see it then. However, as my luck would have it, it was playing at the local budget cinema while I was in the area looking to see a film. So, yesterday I finally saw Spellbound.
The film is documentary about eight students, male and female, from various areas, backgrounds, and ethnicities, all on their way to the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. At times, it would be very easy for a film such as this to creep into Christopher Guest territory; ordinary people, extreme dedication, nerdiness, parents... Yet though you sometimes cringe at awkward moments caught on film, everyone involved comes out with dignity. During the spelling bee scenes, you could actually hear other people in the theater holding their breath while a tough word was spelled, only to sigh in relief or disappointments at the results. I am sure that I wasn't alone in silently mouthing the spelling of some words along with the students.
The speller who moved me the most was Ashley, the D.C. area participant. When she describes her life as being like a movie, with lots of trials and setbacks to overcome, I found myself really pulling for her; not just in the Bee, but in life. I really hope she suceeds, and manages to overcome the many obstacles placed in her path. I was similarly moved by Angela, yet I found it easier to see a happy ending for her. I think the difference was inner-city poverty vs. rural poverty. Neither are easy, but it seems more likely that violence will play a bigger role in Ashley's life than it will with Angela. God bless the children. Honestly, I liked all of the kids, and their parents all seemed like good people, too. It was difficult to watch everytime someone was eliminated from the competition, even though it was inevitable.
There were also some nice interviews with former winners, including Frank Neuhauser, the very first winner in 1925, with "gladiolus". Dr. Alex J. Cameron, the pronouncer (who died this past February), gave some interesting insights into the reasons behind the earliest spelling bees: the fact that education was a means for success and that the ability to read was seen as a major asset.
If you get a chance to see this charming film, I highly recommend that you take it.