Spellbound is a documentary that follows eight pre-teenage contenders in the 1999 National Spelling Bee finals. The cast includes an inner-city girl from D.C. who looks like she's going to barf every time she steps up to the microphone. Another is a hyperactive spaz from New Jersey who fidgets nonstop, firing off stupid jokes in weird robot voices. One boy is a gangly, monolithic genius. Some are second-generation immigrants whose parents speak limited English. Most of them have enormous spectacles and braces, or both. Their mannerisms and facial expressions, as they writhe under the pressure, are worth about a trillion bucks a pop.
They are big-time, card-carrying super-nerds.
While profiling the participants, the film also includes interviews with the parents. Some lay on the pressure in much the same way as jock dads or stage moms. Some are grown-up geek versions of their nerd spawn, sporting ever more enormous pairs of glasses. Others are in obvious awe of their progeny, bursting with pride and astonishment. Their kids are trained extensively, leaving trails of battered family dictionaries in their wake. One girl admits to dedicating eight or nine hours per day to studying during summer vacations (only five or six when school's in).
Complete with suspenseful music, the film documents the competition grippingly, inciting the same outrage and affiliation in the audience that's usually inspired by athletic competition. Watching as they nervously request clarifications, or employ the handy-dandy palm-writing technique, is more nerve-wracking and entertaining than one might imagine. It can be difficult to refrain from yelling "Yeah, what is the language of origin, mister bee master? Ecclesiastical!, Dude, it's so in the bag!"
The documentary's winning angle is in showcasing the kids in their element. Insecure as they may be, here they are adored and supported. They're all pretty slow-moving targets for bullying, but within this arena they are championed, celebrated, and popular. It caters best to an audience with some degree of dork affiliation, since half the fun is trying (and failing) to spell the words yourself And there's just something pure about getting your ass kicked by eighth grade dweebs.