The Heartland Spirit, September, 2003
Academy Award-nominated documentary by Jeff Blitz, currently playing at the Campus Theater in Iowa City
by Tony Ellis
Question: Can you make a documentary about a national children’s spelling competition entertaining, exciting and dramatic. The answer: Absolutely, yes. Spellbound follows the paths of eight children from various backgrounds heading for the 1999 U.S. National Spelling Bee Finals in Washington, D.C. At times endearing and at others hilariously funny, the film is moves along at an enthralling pace, cleverly augmented by tubular bell music a.k.a. American Beauty. The style is similar to the “mockumentaries” of Christopher Guest and company (Best in Show, Spinal Tap, etc.). But while Guest uses fictional characters and events to create his humor, the director of Spellbound uses real life (although it is hard to believe that some of the characters, especially a couple of those schoolteachers and one particular pair of Texas ranchers, are not played by Guest himself in disguise). For the New Agers, the film includes meditation, vegetarianism, Indian gurus, chanting and peacocks. For the sports fans: well did you know that the National Spelling Bee Finals are televised live on ESPN with full color commentary?
Spellbound succeeds for many reasons—engaging camera work, slick editing and well applied music among them. But perhaps most important of all is the close emotional connection the director achieves between the camera and the subject which allows those being filmed to be open and spontaneous. It is also nail-biting drama. When nature calls, I usually feel no compunction about taking a quick break from the latest Hollywood action thriller. In the case of Spellbound, I was chairbound (and bladderbound!)— there was no way I was going to miss anything. The only slight criticism I have is that, for some inexplicable reason, the winner was revealed before the climactic finale, but it was a quick flash and hopefully not everyone will catch it.
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in real life based entertainment. On television, reality TV rules. In this year’s American Idol contest on Fox TV, more votes were cast than in the 2000 presidential election. Most likely this is a reaction to the transparent artifice and intellectual paucity being churned out by the Hollywood film industry. Oscar winner Michael Moore, in Bowling for Columbine, proved that serious issues can be dealt with in an entertaining manner and, yes, they can also be taken to the bank. Spellbound was a runner up to Moore’s Oscar-winning film, but deserves no less success.