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Spellbound
Dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Opens April 30th at the Film Forum

Now Spell Copasetic

So last year it was Hell House, and everyone was skeptical and thought I was crazy for being into a movie that sounded so lame. And everyone shunned me and called me weird. Until they actually saw it, that is; and then I was like a god to them. Well, I mean I dreamed I was like a god to them. In reality no one has ever revered a film critic… for anything. Except maybe Ebert, but that's only because he ate Gene Siskel; it has nothing to do with his reviewing prowess; 'reviewing prowess' is kind of a redundancy in and of itself. But still, I was right about Hell House.

Well, this year its Spellbound; a documentary about (now, don't fall out of your chairs or anything) the 1999 national spelling bee. Yeah those things in junior high that separated out the geeks and nerds, and put them on display in front of the whole class so everyone else would know who they were supposed to pummel after fourth period.

Let's start with a little bit of personal background. I readily admit that I am one of those people who will watch the spelling bee on ESPN if I happen to surf by it on one the two days per year it airs. I am NOT, however, someone who knows which days those are, nor do I particularly enjoy spelling nor am I very good at it. Personally I never made it past the homeroom level of the spelling bees in junior high. But still, this movie is one damn fine flick.

Free Williamsburg
Film Archive

2003

Spellbound
Cowboy Bebop

Washington Heights
Better Luck Tomorrow
Confidence
View From the Top

Laurel Canyon

Spider
Spun
Ordinary Sinner
Dark Blue
Chaos
The Quiet American
XX/YY

2002

Intacto
Empire
Max
Hell House
Good Housekeeping
Roger Dodger
Spirited Away
Punch-Drunk Love
Bowling For Columbine
Scarlet Diva
Full Frontal
Sex and Lucia
The Powerpuff Girls Movie
Read My Lips (Sur Mes Levres)
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
Barleby
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Human Nature
Shot in the Heart
Jim Brown: All American
Stolen Summer
Curve
Ram Dass: Fierce Grace
Storytelling


"For the longest time Spellbound was just in my head and stored in my apartments and on my editor's Macintosh," Jeffery Blitz, the films director, told me in a recent interview I conducted with him and his sound editor, Sean Welch. They are overwhelmed by the nation-wide release and how well critics are receiving the film. And that's nothing to say for it garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. While Bowling For Columbine was a shoe-in to win, Spellbound was heralded as a close second, and rightful champion by many of the critics across the country. Blitz obviously cares about the kids a great deal; having documented the stories of thirteen contenders, having to edit out five of them was terrible, he explained. And it didn't matter to him whether or not one of his kids actually won the bee; as the kids themselves put it, being one of the 249 spellers in the competition is pretty impressive in and of itself. Some of these kids are cocky and confident, some don't seem to care if they win or lose, and some have no faith in themselves at all. Regardless, however, when that bell rings them out of the competition it's heartbreaking across the board.

A lot of the movie is completely unbelievable in the way that you simply can't accept the fact that what you're seeing is real. Todd, a contender from Missouri, for example, has a family so obviously from Missouri they ought to be wearing 'I heart New York' tees as a sign of irony. Or the local Hooters using its marquee to send out a vote of confidence for Napur, a fourteen-year-old girl from Florida. Or that there's are kids in Connecticut who still play polo. Or that damned dog from Pennsylvania! (You'll just have to see it). The movie gives you such a strange cross-section of Americana it feels somehow staged. But its not. This is real. And that's pretty fucked up.

Spellbound feels like a strange breeding of those awful child-beauty pageants, where the parents are maniacally feverish about their child winning, with a survivor-like reality show, as you get to watch the contestants be picked off one by one. But that's far too insulting. It's actually nothing like that. Or, rather, it's like a breeding of those two things if they were both done perfectly--with poise and grace and intelligence.

The Ratings

Three Steak Knives (for to cut the tension with)

From the opening shot, watching Harry (who either has a severe case of ADD or a mild case of prepubescent dementia) meander his way through a word he can't pronounce, through the entire hour-and-a-half long movie, the tension is unbelievable. You are more nervous, and even scared than with any horror or psychological drama in recent memory.

Three Little Engines That Could

The kids are what make this movie, obviously. But most impressive about them isn't their prowess with words, it's how completely true they are with the filmmaker, and how unashamed they are of themselves. I really wish I'd had the balls when I was thirteen to do my impression of a singing robot for a camera crew; you go, Harry!

Four H-I-P-S-T-E-R-S

This is an awesome movie. One of the best I've seen in years. The honesty with which the kids present themselves to Blitz, who wisely never uses the camera to play favorites or offer his opinion, is a beautiful thing. Spellbound is technically masterful, and thoroughly engaging. I seriously doubt there will be a better movie in theatres this year.

*As a side note, I feel it my duty to point out that the Microsoft Word Spellchecker caught twenty-four misspelled words in this article. Among them are 'amoung' in this very sentence, as well as 'sentance,' which I just now spelled wrong. Also there's 'Miusorri' (as in the state), 'prepubecant' and my favorite so far 'kopacetic' (from the title).

--B.C. Edwards
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[email protected] | May 2003 | Issue 38
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