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Movie review: "Spellbound": Casting a Spell: Kids give director all the ingredients for a great drama

Jeff Blitz probably couldn't have found a less cinematic premise for a documentary. Fortunately, he probably couldn't have hand-picked a better cast.

Jeff Blitz probably couldn't have found a less cinematic premise for a documentary. Fortunately, he probably couldn't have hand-picked a better cast.

"Spellbound," Blitz's documentary on the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, is a sometimes stirring, sometimes weird but an always thoroughly absorbing peek into a world where kids are asked to spell words most of us have never even heard.

On the surface, it's about eight teenage kids who make it to the Super Bowl of competitive spelling. But it's also about their families and, ultimately, about dreams, goals, failures and triumphs.

The kids are Angela, whose Texas ranchhand father speaks no English; Nupur, a sort of classic honors student of East Indian parents; Ted, a loner who's isolated as both the newest and smartest kid in his Missouri school; Emily, a brainy kid from Connecticut; Ashley, a sweet Washington, D.C., inner-city girl; Neil, from San Clemente, Calif., whose family approaches spelling bees like war; April, a pessimistic girl from Pennsylvania; and Harry, a goofy kid from New Jersey who looks like he stepped from a "Peanuts" comic.

The film follows each from their regional wins, which qualified them for nationals, through the national contest in Washington, D.C.


"Spellbound" unfolds at a leisurely pace.

Its entire first half is used to introduce the characters. All come from good families and represent a range of economic circumstances.

There aren't any monstrous stage parents, although Neil's parents are a bit creepy; his dad lays out a whole system for the kid to follow and says proudly Neil practices up to 8,000 words a day. Unsurprisingly, Neil seems to have the least fun of any of the kids profiled.

Blitz, who also shot the film, builds deft, fully fleshed-out portraits of each of the eight. They're like kids we've all known, but none are stereotypes.

He's resisted the temptation to show each of his subjects as a little Brainiac. Even the most focused, hard-core competitors are multi-dimensional. And in the tight shots, whether they're being interviewed or competing, their eyes say what their words do not. During the competitions, you almost can hear them thinking.

The director's skill comes through most clearly once the spellers reach the national competition. Blitz puts the viewer literally in his subjects' faces. Every nerve-induced facial tic, every shocked look of defeat and every sunny smile of triumph leaps off the screen.

When the kids lose, most of their reactions are about what you'd expect, although there's one surprise -- one of the most seemingly appealing kids turns out to be a really poor loser.

There's some small sub-plots. Blitz interviews past spelling bee winners -- including the guy who won the first one in 1925. And toward the end, the remaining competitors have to face a kid named George, who's regarded by his opponents with something approaching awe.


"Spellbound" was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar this year but lost to "Bowling for Columbine."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541


Fargo Theatre


97 minutes

Three-and-a-half stars

Out of four stars

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