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Sit for a spell

by Wren Wertin
Special to the DailyIn "Spellbound," documentary filmmaker Jeff Blitz follows eight youngsters, out of the 248 participants, as they prepare for the 1999 National Spelling Bee.
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He couldn’t have written a funnier script – never mind the bigger themes behind the humor of circumstance and character.

In “Spellbound,” documentary filmmaker Jeff Blitz follows eight youngsters, out of the 248 participants, as they prepare for the 1999 National Spelling Bee – an electrifying event if ever there was one. The film opened in Vail last Friday at Crossroads, and will move to Cascade this Friday. No matter how good the weather, everyone should see this movie.

The idea to make the film came to Blitz as he watched the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee of 1997, broadcasted on ESPN.

“I was hooked immediately,” he said. “I think there’s such a natural drama built into the competition. Everyone tries to spell along with these extraordinary kids and, inevitably, fails.”

That drama is fueled by several givens: each kid who makes it to the National Bee has drive and desire, otherwise they simply couldn’t get that far. No matter what the intellectual inclinations of the spellers’ parents, it becomes a family affair – with all of the hopefulness of vicarious dreams-come-true.

Perhaps even more amazing than each child’s wherewithal to pinpoint a dream and then work toward it with determined steps, is the personal nature of the goals. They weren’t catty or self absorbed – they played nice. It’s not kid vs. kid, but kid vs. word, said Blitz.

“Whenever a kid fights back against the big, bad dictionary, it’s a moment of triumph,” he said.

Many of the profiled spellers are children of first-generation immigrants, and winning the Bee is the equivalent of pursuing the American Dream.

Blitz calls that pursuit “understandable, astonishing and sometimes bittersweet.”

“The bigger the word, the bigger she likes it,” said Nupur’s father, an immigrant from India who seems both astounded and pleased that his violin-playing daughter chose language as her passion.

Nupur was able to go to the Bee only after beating a triumvirate of her schoolmates whose unified goal was unseating her – they recalled for the camera each round of their school’s spelling bee, and the words that kicked them out of the race. Spending time with these details is both humorous for the audience as well as indicative of each hurdle to be overcome.

“And then I got “iridescent,'” said one of the boys. “I thought it had two “r’s.”

“I thought it had two “r’s, too,” said his friend.

“A lot of people thought it had two “r’s,” said the first boy matter-of-factly.

April’s parents aren’t immigrants – she describes them as “Archie and Edith Bunker.” Instead of hanging out at the mall with her friends during the summer, she spent eight to nine hours a day studying the dictionary.

“Besides words, I like to ride roller coasters. I’m a vegetarian and I like to drink coffee,” she said, summing up her world in a few sentences.

“My life is like a move,” explained Ashley, who lives in the D.C. projects and studies the dictionary while her mother struggles to feed her and her siblings.

Harry, Neil, Ted, Angela, Emily – they all have stories behind the words. “Spellbound” is a polysyllabic adventure that ought to entertain any audience. For showtimes call the movie line at 476-5661.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.

4 3/4 stars out of 5

“Spellbound”

Directed by Jeff Blitz

Starring the proverbial boys and girls next door

Rated G


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