Dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Opens April 30th at the Film Forum
Now Spell Copasetic
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
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.
"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.
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!
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).