Secret life of bees
Being smart, studying hard and maintaining composure under extreme pressure are important, but they’re not the only elements that go into winning a national spelling-bee championship. Sheer luck of the draw turns out to be a determining factor, too, as kids march regiments of consonants and vowels over their lips letter by letter while judges, family, friends, strangers and—in recent years—an ESPN crew and home audience intently watch and listen.
Take, for example, the predicament of young Harry as he struggles with the word “banns” at the beginning of Jeffrey Blitz’s gripping, enchanting and aptly named documentary Spellbound. Of the nearly half-million entries in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Harry has been asked to spell a word that is more obscure than difficult. The word means nothing to him. There is no “'i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” rule of thumb to follow here. No “change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es.’” His options are many. Is he up to the challenge? Is he just an ill-fated kid destined to stand in the slowest line at store checkout stands for the rest of his life? Does any of this really matter?
In Spellbound, a new documentary that takes us deep behind the scenes of the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee Championship in Washington, D.C., we are introduced to eight students like Harry. We trail them as they progress from regional competitions, involving about 9 million kids, to the nationals, where 249 contestants vie for a single crown. In the final two-day showdown, 248 of these kids will misspell a word. But that certainly does not label them as losers. Blitz is not so much interested in who takes the trophy home at the end of the day but rather in personal drive and achievement. His search for lasting substance among the elusive glory here is a moving embrace of the diverse backgrounds of the students, the determination and dedication pumped into the event, and the self-realization and satisfaction that may be gained merely by competing.
The film takes us into the hometowns of the students and explores their neighborhoods, work ethics, training methods, family dynamics, dreams and attitudes. Blitz interviews the teachers of the students and several past national champions. The instrumental soundtrack featuring vibes, harmonica, guitar and percussion has a mellow, game-show ambience at times. And the people and the event at hand intertwine into a bittersweet story that is alternately comic, heartbreaking, insightful, festive and suspenseful. The main event seems to have different meanings to different people as it reaches across a melting pot of nationalities and social and economic classes.
Angela from Texas works with flashcards and homemade crossword puzzles to sharpen her accuracy. Her parents are illegal Mexican immigrants who speak almost no English. When she won her regional competition, it was the first time she remembers crying because she was so happy and the first time she ever saw her dad cry. Nupur from Tampa Florida is a returnee at the nationals who is congratulated on a local Hooters billboard. Ted from Mississippi has an older brother interested in guns and explosives, and as a brilliant kid, he struggles to make friends and find acceptance in rural America.
Emily does not like to spell but does like to compete: “I ride horses with people who are better than me, and I play music with people who are better than me.” So, she searched for an activity in which she could excel: spelling. Neil’s father has hired spelling coaches and 1,000 people in India to chant for his son, and Neil’s mother supports their investment: “When you fight in a war, everyone has the same goal.” April of Pennsylvania studies eight to nine hours a day during the summer and dreams of missing an easy word. Another girl saw herself appearing on the late Rosie O’Donnell Show, and her mom says she mumbles words in her sleep. Competitors must deal with feelings of possibly disappointing people they love, and Ashley from a troubled Washington, D.C., housing project turns to prayer for support.
Spellbound was shot on digital video and edited down from 160 hours of actual footage on a Final Cut Pro system in Blitz’s apartment. At one point, Neil’s father, Rajesh, asks and responds rhetorically: “What is valuable in life that is easy to achieve? Nothing.” I agree. But Spellbound also makes it clear that winning is a very relative term. The kids that probably come away with the greatest experience are the ones with the most realistic expectations. Can someone give me an Amen?