How doth the busy bee?
The National Spelling Bee offers a tangy slice of American life in filmmaker Blitz’ documentary
Don’t be fooled by the cuteness quotient in Spellbound. Cute kids competing in the National Spelling Bee is part of what it’s about, but Jeffrey Blitz’s kindly documentary is also a surprisingly tangy slice of contemporary American life—with an aftertaste that’s more bittersweet than not.
Blitz focuses on eight kids in particular, youngsters from Texas, Florida, Missouri, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., who are among the 249 national finalists. The first half of the film gives glancing hometown portraits of the kids and their families, and the second half surveys the 1999 finals.
The individual portraits incorporate bits of quirky local color amid a kind of visual essay on the widely varied characters of some very smart and exceptionally motivated American kids. The motivation motif reverberates in pictures of family and cultural backgrounds, and, with half of the film’s kids coming from immigrant and minority backgrounds, Spellbound also begins to become an update on the American melting pot.
At least some of the people in the film are celebrating the mythical American equation of hard work and success, and Blitz links that to a variety of ironic undercurrents in the film—obsession, overwork, overcompensation, etc.—while taking care not to overplay such matters.