The Agony of the Bee

Spellbound

Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 documentary Spellbound is such a completely charming movie that I feel a little bad for wanting more from it. The film tracks eight kids’ paths to the 1999 national spelling bee in Washington, D.C., and it’s fun, funny, sweet, heartening, suspenseful, and humbling. (I spent a lot of the movie wondering if I’d be able to spell one of the words correctly.)

There’s much to like about the movie. It’s pretty straightforward as a documentary — it introduces the eight children in its first half and then spends the second half following them at the national bee — but it has many great moments. There’s a clever sequence that uses visual shorthand for an endurance-contest qualifying bee. And while the structure of the movie suggests that one of these eight will win the national bee, all of a sudden a new kid gets thrown into the mix, and that supposition is thrown into doubt. Because the audience doesn’t know how to spell many (if any) of the words, there’s a great suspense as the kids finish their turns. Will a ding make their faces collapse? Or will the bell’s silence lead to relief and jubilation? How long does one have to wait before one knows the bell isn’t going to ring?

And, oh, those faces. These are people unspoiled by vanity, fame, or high-school performance, and you can easily read their emotions from expression and body language. Spellbound should be required viewing for all child actors trying to nail authenticity in their characters, because the full range of emotion is on display.

But I did want it be something a little more biting. Spellbound hints at the Seedy Underbelly of the Spelling Bee — bribes, murder, sex scandals, and the like — but prefers to stay in wholesome territory, applauding these middle-school students for their tremendous accomplishments and using kid gloves with their evil parents.

As the son of parents who were more demanding than most about grades — my mother was gravely disappointed with my only C in college, in my last semester, after I’d already been awarded highest honors — I think I can speak with some experience that there must be a balance of helping your children reach their potential and letting them succeed, fail, wander, and stumble on their own. These kids generally don’t have that balance, and of course their parents should be faulted.

Early in Spellbound there’s a comment that some people think these spelling-bee kids are abused children, but the statement is dismissed. Clearly, Blitz loves these kids and wants to portray them in a positive light, but I wish the movie gave the statement more consideration. The exhaustive and exhausting practice regimens speak to the dedication of the children and their families, but to what end? Spelling obscure words, after all, is a skill that pays few dividends in the real world, and while that gives the pursuit of the spelling title a certain nobility and purity — akin to athletes in Olympic sports with no commercial markets — it’s also fundamentally pointless.

That wouldn’t be a problem if you had a sense that these children enjoyed the spelling practice and competition. As it is, it’s hard to tell if they do. These kids often seem too good to be true, and I wanted to see them angry at their ridiculous parents. There’s a hint of some of what’s missing when contestant Neil Kadakia expresses relief that the contest is over so he doesn’t have to follow his father’s exacting routine any longer, but that line was so fast and so surprising (in the context of the movie) that I’m still not sure I heard it correctly. I’m not asking for a three-hour exposé on the evils of the spelling bee; I simply want some acknowledgment that the drive of these parents might sometimes do more harm than good.

Part of the problem is that it doesn’t appear that Blitz spent much time with his subjects; the kids are wearing the same clothes for most or all of their pre-D.C. interviews. Generally this isn’t troublesome; because his kids aren’t famous, they’re relatively naked and up-front about their ambitions and lives. There’s no hiding that Harry Altman sits somewhere on the continuum of ADHD and autism. And when Ashley White’s mother complains that the local school district isn’t “publicicizing” her daughter enough, you get a sense of how much these children are vessels for their parents’ ambitions. (And I cringed that the only African-American kid in the movie, who won the District of Columbia’s bee, has the mother who speaks English poorly.) There’s no polish in the families, no defense mechanism to keep the camera at bay.

But the movie lacks the intimacy of the best documentaries. Spellbound is chock full of wonderful human-interest stories presented with the surface rigor of the best daily journalism. It admires the children’s hard work and the noble ambitions these parents have for their kids. It connects the national spelling bee to the American Dream. It shows the exquisite pain of Neil’s competition pause, when he knows how a word ends but doesn’t want to finish spelling it because he’s so afraid that he messed up what he cannot correct.

What it lacks is a deeper understanding of the characters and their families.

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