Spellbound

This documentary’s basic premise is to follow eight kids as they try to win a national spelling bee. It sounds a bit lame, but the actual result is far more intriguing. The film’s first segment is… difficult. These kids are A) coming out of a very challenging situation, or B) very different from their peers, or C) frightening in their intensity, or D) going through the rough beginnings of the most ungainly period in human development, or E) some combination of the preceding. However, once past the initial groundwork, the film becomes a fascinating and unbearably suspenseful narrative.

Because it’s a documentary, it’s a bit like Band of Brothers. Anyone can go at any time. It’s usually not pretty, and it’s never happy (though some take it in a very healthy manner). Also, the patterns of presentation are varied (often with an aim to fake you out) to eliminate any predictability that might emerge in the pattern of competition and elimination.

It’s a surprisingly powerful and revelatory film, revealing so many subtle threads in the fabric of family, culture, society, childhood, middle America, and competition. Give it a try.

But damn, people. Damn. I thought the wedding subculture was messed up, but this stuff almost takes the cake (no pun intended). It’s not so much the specifics, as it is the sometimes bizarre intensity.


Spellbound demonstrates, very effectively, the distilled, twisting, tormenting pressure that spelling bees represent. They are a combination of Russian roulette, firing squad, and dueling. It’s you against everyone and yourself. A competitive culture that’s both luck and skill, they put immense pressure on already unusual and unusually skilled children. Like an Olympic sport, they push the development of one arguably semi-useful skill to its extremes (spelling’s important, but it’s not a career or a survival skill). These factors, along with the resulting attention, probably contribute to one former champion’s description of winning as “a significant liability.”

I do not understand, in the least, the desire to put one’s self in front of something like that over something like spelling (although I do believe attentiveness to spelling is important). But, I can understand those factors that feed the phenomenon: the communities, the opportunity to achieve, the sense of connection between hard work and success, and the similarity to real life that many people see in it. The parents, at least with the eight children we follow, all clearly love their children, and none of them berate or belittle them for any shortcomings. Ultimately, the spelling bee itself is as unimportant as it seems. It’s everything else around it, leading up to it, and after it that is truly meaningful.

While writing the above observations, I misspelled (and corrected) four words: narrative, revelatory, dueling, and predictability.

One reply on “Spellbound

  1. I was in a spelling bee as an eighth-grader. Made it all the way up to the round that they televised on our local PBS affiliate, but crapped out at 11th place with the word “raglan.” Raglen? FUCK, I still can’t figure out which vowel is right. It’s some sort of clothes-or-sewing-related word.

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