Spellbound

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Jonathan Knisley won the 44th National Spelling Bee in 1971, correctly spelling the word 'shalloon'. Looking back, he reflects: 'I don't really think it helped me in my nascent love life.' Indeed. Webster's Unabridged - the American spelling contest's bible of choice - is a demanding mistress, and it likes 'em young. This doozy documentary follows eight of its squeezes, aged 12 to 15, through the agonies and ecstasies of, a two-day knockout spelling hoedown in Washington, DC, the climax of the 1999 championship. It's great drama - precisely because director/cameraman Blitz sets his sights wider than just the question of who'll ride out the Bee's increasingly outlandish orthographic challenges. The first half-hour gives us pithy introductions to the candidates in their habitats, and lets them sketch their own stories. Angela, from Texas, is a self-driven English enthusiast - her father emigrated from Mexico 25 years ago, and has never learnt the language. April's father got laid off from his Pennsylvania asbestos plant; now she dreams of going out on an easy word. Neil, a second generation Indian-American from comfortable southern California, is overshadowed by his voluble dad, who runs Neil through 8,000 words a day and eulogises the wonders of the American Dream. Harry, he's a funny guy; when he hits a hurdle, you know what he's feeling. The crisp, judicious editing pulls all this into beguiling shape, teasing out the suspense while leading your prejudices a merry dance. Quite nonchalantly, the film incorporates an almost cubist array of perspectives on these characters, the Spelling Bee, and the encompassing landscape of American dreams and credos. It's as enthralling as any fiction - and I'm still holding out for those kids' love lives...

Release details

Duration: 97 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Cast: Perrytown
Washington
DC Paige Kimble
Dr Alex J Cameron
Frank Neuhauser
Angela Arenivar
Nupur Lala
Ted Brigham
New Haven
Emily Stagg
Ashley White
San Clemente
Neil Kadakia
April DeGideo
Glen Rock
Harry Altman
National Spelling Bee
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