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Spellbound (May 22/03)

Spellbound is one of the four other documentaries that was nominated at this year's Oscars, along with the eventual winner, Bowling for Columbine. It's really a shame that Michael Moore's doc was the focus of so much attention, because Spellbound is clearly the better movie.

The film details the efforts of eight children as they compete in the National Spelling Bee and is essentially split into two parts: The first introduces the various kids and their families, while the second follows the Bee itself. It's hard to say which half is more effective, as both are completely necessary. By allowing us to get know each of these contestants, the Spelling Bee portion of the film becomes surprisingly suspenseful because we've come to care about each of the eight children.

But the most intriguing aspect of Spellbound is the kids themselves, all of whom come from different backgrounds and cultures. By examining each of their lives, the film also works as a fascinating look at contemporary American life. As we begin to meet the contestants, it becomes increasingly clear that these kids couldn't be more different from one another. A portrait of Emily, who lives in Connecticut and rides horses in her spare time, is followed by a glimpse into Ashley's life, who comes from a single parent household and lives in Washington's inner city. The other six contestants are equally disparate, and easily represent a cross section of America's population.

And as we begin to meet the other contestants and learn what's motivating each of these kids, it becomes increasingly clear that vastly different factors are provoking hours of hard work. For Neil, whose family came to America from India before he was born, it's seemingly to please his tough father. As we listen to the older man explain his incredibly complicated system for learning words, it's fairly obvious that Neil isn't necessarily doing all this for himself. But the most compelling portrait by far is that of Angela, a young girl hailing from Texas. Her story is remarkable because her parents don't even speak English, and evidently entered the United States from Mexico illegally sometime before she was born. As her older brother tells us the story of their father (and even winds up close to tears as he explains how proud everyone is of her), Angela becomes the film's underdog.

So, when the time invariably comes for the Spelling Bee and the kids are slowly eliminated one by one, it becomes awfully hard not to share in their disappointment. But with the exception of one contestant who breaks down into tears, they all have a rather positive outlook on the experience (most are just happy the whole thing is over). And by the time the winner is revealed, it's almost besides the point; all of these kids are winners, the film seems to be saying, and should be applauded for getting as far as they did. It's certainly an uplifting message, and one that ensures the movie should have more staying power than Moore's topical Bowling for Columbine.

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© David Nusair