Sunday, January 25, 2004

Partial review by Sombrero Grande

Forget elaborate car chases, people hanging by wires in front of blue screens or CGI monsters. You want a movie that will have you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and cringing with tension? Then watch Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound, a documentary about the 1999 National Spelling Bee that is absolutely, for lack of a less cheesy term, spellbinding.

What’s that you say? “A spelling bee? Sombrero Grande, are you one taco short of a combo platter? How the heck can a bunch of kids spelling words be that exciting?” Well, my friend, this documentary presents a handful of highly intelligent early and pre-teens from all over the United States, gets you familiar with them and their families, then has you watch them sweat and stagger their way through some of the most obscure words you’ll ever hear. If standing in front of a classroom of your peers was intimidating for you as a kid, imagine standing in front of a nationwide audience on ESPN, all attention squarely focused on you, and you’ve just been asked to spell some foreign word you’ve never even heard of before. The film opens with a young kid named Harry struggling during the competition with a word he doesn’t know. We feel for him to some extent, but later when we happen upon the same scene at the end of the documentary the tension is greatly magnified after getting to know him and his mother, as well as many of the other contestants and their families. It’s heartbreaking to see these kids we’ve come to care about mercilessly “dinged” and led off stage. We’re brought to honestly cheering with them in their victories and cringing with them during in their hardship and defeats.

But the movie isn’t all heartbreak and worry; Spellbound also gives us an interesting look at how people live all over America, from Orange County, CA, to Washington D.C. There’s also a great deal of humor, largely stemming from the vast array of unique and real individuals, from hyperactive Harry to one girl’s mom whose lame-to-the-point-of-becoming-charming love of puns on the word “bee” reminded me of Ralph Wiggum’s Valentines card on The Simpsons.

I’m calling this a “partial review” because there’s really not much more I can say about Spellbound that my fellow Masked Movie Snob El Bicho hasn’t already stated quite nicely in his review. Give it a read because I agree with his assertions, including his gripe about the slight climax fumble at the end of the documentary.

Even with that little glitch, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It’s a wonderfully put-together, exciting, funny, engrossing documentary that truly had me on the edge of my seat and having a great time.

By the way, as a parting side note: Harry, the kid from Jersey who tells long jokes and occasionally randomly decides to answer questions in the voice of a “musical robot,” acts almost exactly the same way I did when I was his age. I have the home videos to prove it. Scary.


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