Having been blessed with the two parts of the anti-cool holy trinity – chubby with acne (I was spared braces) – junior high remains a desolate wasteland of awkward gym changing room encounters and sweaty Boys to Men slow dances. Yet, there’s always a silver lining, and for me it was spelling. The more syllables, the merrier, and each spring, when class spelling bees would begin axing potential winners, I inevitably began salivating over the sweet taste of spelling success. I had forgotten how satisfying it felt to successfully enunciate the word “didactic” up until seeing “Spellbound,” a film that documents the journey of eight U.S. middle schoolers from extraordinarily varied backgrounds as they attempt to win the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Never in my life have I so desperately wanted to thrust back the hands of time and relive the hall of mirrors known as “the awkward middle school years” as I did when watching this side-aching battle of child vs. word.
The children themselves couldn’t have been dreamed up more perfectly by the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood. First, there’s Harry, whose nervous tics and exaggerated on-stage facial expressions are enough to dutifully steal the show. Though he breezes through a word like “cephalalgia,” his tiny face contorts into a million Jim Carrey-esque poses when stumped with “banns.”
Neil lives in a lavish San Clemente beach estate and is the son of East Indian parents who spare no cost in hopes of watching their son take home the trophy. Hours of language tutoring and rigorous quizzing are only topped when Neil’s grandfather in India promises to feed 5,000 people should he win. (This is on top of the 1,000 people he has paid to pray for Neil around the clock.)
A double-wide trailer in rural Missouri plays home to Ted, the surprisingly monolith-sized genius squarely planted in a barren dustbowl of uneducated truck-lovers. While intellect and dry wit are Ted’s weapons of choice, his older brother seems to have taken a liking to explosives and weaponry, causing his mother to note that “We think we’ll have to send that one off to the Marines.”
Angela might be the most inspiring of all the children, having been born to Mexican immigrants who are still unable to speak English. Growing up in the panhandle of Texas, Angela has devised countless strategies to ensure academic greatness and offers her father the chance to realize his dream of seeing her compete in the U.S. capitol.
The other children are equally as enthralling, each seeming to devote unhealthy segments of their lives to bee studying. April, whose father owns the Easy Street Bar across from where he grew up, studies an average of eight to nine hours during the summer but is plagued with a shocking lack of confidence. Ashley, the daughter of a single mother in the D.C. projects, is marvelously cheerful as she casually rides the gritty subways by herself to and from school. As far as children with unmatched maturity, there’s Emily who comes from the lush, green lawns of Connecticut and manages to sing in an a cappella group and compete in equestrian games in between cramming for spelling bees. Lastly, there’s Nupur, also the daughter of Indian parents, who seems unnaturally calm and likeably smug when recounting how she trounced the competition before being eliminated at last year’s national bee.
During the D.C. competition, the audience revels in parent reactions, tearful conclusions and relief from children ready to put their spelling days behind them. ESPN is brought in the second day of word battling for a live telecast, with announcers able to build tension as well as at an NBA playoff game. One by one, the children are eliminated and the support networks catch them after their falls, sometimes with a dose of heartbreak thrown in. Still, the comedy afforded by anxious teenagers, mouths stuffed with metalwork and clothes hanging off their gangly frames, is enough to make the audience keel over in painful recollection. This, of course, reaches a high point when animated Harry begins reciting responses to the cameramen in automated tones while saying, “I-am-a-musical-robot. Do-I-sound-like-a-musical-robot?” Needless to say, tears were shed.
“Spellbound” functions much like any Hollywood nail-biter, building appropriate tension and leaving plenty of guessing room as to who might walk home a winner. What makes the film excel beyond its peers is its brilliant ability to bring keyhole glances into the lives of Americans from so many economic and ethnic backgrounds, all striving for the same goal. In a sense, the film manages to capture that rare sentiment known as true patriotism without waving a boatload of flags before the audience’s face.
I remember my mother once saying that there wasn’t enough money in the world to make her relive middle school and not understanding until after high school. Sure, nobody’s supposed to know what to do with their limbs or body hair at the age of 14, but so long as kids can shove their faces in books and rattle off six-syllable words, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.