Spellbound follows eight promising students, their parents, teachers, and one family dog to the National Spelling Bee. The contestants, all under the age of 15, were victors in their local spelling bees held in places like Perryton, Texas, and Rolla, Missouri. Some, like Harry, are loquacious and confident, while others, like Ted, are insecure and aphasic. One girl, Angela, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who don't speak a word of English. All of these young people have one dream, and it's not just to win the Bee. Jeffrey Blitz's debut documentary is about the American Dream, the chance to enjoy what may be the only brush with fame within reach of a kid in the Texas Panhandle or in a double-wide trailer in the wilds of Missouri.
Blitz's acuity for visual puns--like the family dog who seems to have leapt out of a George Booth cartoon--his wry good humor when interviewing odd kids like Ted, and his insightful peek at parents and teachers feigning nonchalance for the camera are what make Spellbound so amusing. Careful to devote an equal amount of time to each contestant, the filmmaker doesn't play favorites, nor is he ever contemptuous of his subjects' dreams. Any irreverence he has is reserved for the adults, the stage moms and dads, the indifferent judges, and the former Bee-winner and current Bee president whose 1960s-era hairdo attests to her wish to remain as she was when. Institutions are treated with equal mockery; in the subtext of Spellbound there's an unmistakable disdain for the absurd and often deleterious machinery that drives the Bee.
By the time the contestants get to Washington, D.C. for the finals, the tension is unbearable and it's impossible not to be rooting for somebody. But it's also at this point that you realize Blitz hasn't told you anything about the Bee's sponsor, media conglomerate Scripps-Howard, or about how the company chooses judges or even words. The filmmaker isn't an investigative journalist; he's an interested observer who possesses great wit and the good sense to hire an exceptionally talented editor. (Yana Gorskaya, also a newcomer, waded through 160 hours of footage.) To his credit, with seat-of-the-pants financing and very little experience, Blitz has managed to make an Oscar-nominated documentary that puts a fresh and decidedly wide-eyed spin on the American Dream.