If you're reading this paper, chances are that you're more literate than the average American. If you're reading the film reviews, it's also likely that you've become familiar with words such as "bravura" and "eponymous" -- which seem to exist only in the vocabularies of professional movie assessors. But what if you were confronted with something like "cephalalgia"? Or "apocope"? (My spellcheck program recognizes neither.) Could you know for certain, off the top of your head, whether "distractable" or "distractible" is correct?
Now imagine you're not yet a teenager, and this knowledge is expected of you. Such is the lot of the competitors in Spellbound, an Oscar-nominated documentary that plays like a sports movie, but centers on the National Spelling Bee, in which children from schools around America battle for bragging rights over the ability to spell out loud (and as a side effect, get really well prepared for the verbal SAT). Consider it an athletic contest of the mind -- ESPN does, as the sports network regularly televises the finals.
The movie opens with a particularly theatrical youngster contorting his face in all manner of expressions as he attempts to spell what appears to be the simple word "bands." We laugh at this apparent "choke," only to find out later that the word in question is "banns," a term likely to be familiar only to frequent churchgoers.
After that, the film's structure becomes simple, yet effective. We meet eight local champions, then follow them to the finals. In Texas we meet Angela, daughter of a Mexican-immigrant cowhand who speaks no English. Nupur, who made the third round the previous year, is an Indian American girl whose small town is so proud of her that the local Hooters put up a "Congrad lations" sign on their marquee. Neil, an Indian American from San Clemente, has perhaps the most rigorous preparation of all: His father, looking for patterns, analyzes all previous Spelling Bees, in addition to going through the dictionary methodically. He doesn't stop there: Next up is the hiring of foreign-language tutors -- not to actually make Neil multilingual, but to teach him root patterns that have been imported into English. We meet and follow five other contestants as well.
Spelling Bee contestants get no second chances; once a letter is uttered, it cannot be taken back. Slips of the tongue are no excuse -- early on, a kid asked to spell "mayonnaise" accidentally opens his mouth without thinking and utters an "a," immediately realizing that he blew it. The suspense borders on sadistic -- a bell is rung when a contestant slips up and gets dismissed, but after a correct spelling, there's a pregnant pause. When it becomes clear that no bell has rung, the audience applauds, acknowledging that the spelling must be correct.
Whatever your reservations might be about the subject matter or the film's young subjects, they're quickly washed away once you see how tense a spelling competition can be to watch; chances are, by film's end, you'll lose your skepticism and be sucked in.