It takes many losers to create a single winner. Two hundred forty seven, to be exact. And yes, like they always say, it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game
These concepts are not always shared by the young contestants of the 1999 National Spelling Bee Championship, the subjects of an Academy Award nominated documentary by Jeffrey Blitz. Following the lives, training, and triumphs of eight particular contestants (one of which, we would naturally assume, will go on to win), we are offered a glimpse into a peculiar and heartfelt slice of A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N pie.
There are very few activities in a young person's life that reward being smart for its own sake. Science fairs and art shows offer rare moments for the gifted to be honored; activities that seem inconsequential in the face of Pee-Wee sports and athleticism. The spelling bee towers above all, its American sense of individualism and required displays of sheer intellectual prowess unseen but all but a few individuals and their parents.
How many more movies have been made about some young Mighty Duck-esque team of misfits winning the championship against all odds, compared to the underdog team winning the Math Bowl?
As many who have ever parented, taught, or been such would testify, intelligent children are the misfits, the underdogs, the outcasts, of the prep school system. Sometimes egotistical, sometimes embarrassed of their gifts and seeking to hide them, gifted students often lead two lives: one for their mind, and one to have friends. More often than not, they have only a few friends, though they certainly do not lack for social skills. Instead, they build lasting relationships with books and films - good books and good films - films such as "Spellbound."
There is something very adult, very absurd, about learning to spell obscure words such as cabotinage and logorrhea , yet the featured youths tackle their chore with intensity, training up to eight hours a day with flashcards and dictionaries.
Parents offer support, and although a few follow the overzealous/vicarious trainer model that we love to hate, most stand aside, awed and hopeful of their children's amazing intelligence. The Mexican immigrant father of finalist Angela Arenivar cannot speak a word of English, but still understands that the time honored rituals of the Bee offers the future for his daughter that he dreams of, proud of her accomplishments.
But for what, we might ask? After all, in an era of spell-check, memorizing words that might never be heard in competition, let alone ever spoken or written, seems a little... well, superfluous. The competition functions here as a chance to compete, a chance to show off.
Spelling is not the only thing that comes natural to these kids; they are gifted in many areas. They often have a hard time in high school (socially speaking, that is) and yet return to reunions decades down the road business owners and millionaires. They are not the dreamers and failures that populate modern fiction, but in "Spellbound" they are unique in their struggle.
And yet, when a vowel is misplaced, or a syllable mangled, it is not the end of the world. So deeply do we care for these characters, these truly real people the film follows, that we as the audience are far more upset about the defeats than the contestants themselves act. Most seem happy to be relieved of the pressure, a pressure stemming from an unaccustomed push into a very select spotlight.
"Spellbound" is a very simple movie, with a naïve concern about meaning and aesthetic style that mirrors the triumphs of the spellers and their intelligence. Both are beautiful for it... a part of our American life that will never rise to center stage, never change, and never need replacing.