Jeff Blitz's Spellbound opens with an amazing display of high-octane nerdiness. Harry, a youngster from Glen Rock, New Jersey, who's made it to the finals of the 1999 ..National Spelling Bee, has just been assigned the word "banns," and the overall lack of diphthongs and triphthongs appears to have caused a short in his circuit board. Eyes blink. Mouth opens, exposing a set of braces that looks like some medieval torture device. Then Harry starts running through a series of expressions straight out of the Nerd Handbook, attempting to squeeze the correct spelling out of his brain by contracting his facial muscles. Meanwhile, he's giving us a running commentary of the thoughts that pop into his head. "Oops, maybe I shouldn't have said that out loud," he says out loud. Too late, Harry.
And too late for the nine-million-minus-one middle-schoolers who hear that fateful "ding" after misspelling words that most of us have never heard of and wouldn't use even if we had heard of them. Opsimath? Cabonitage? Hellebore? That the National Spelling Bee, which is now sponsored by the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, is still going strong after all these years suggests a deep longing on our parts for the halcyon days of the little red schoolhouse. (Haven't these people heard of spell-check?) But you only have to watch a few minutes of Spellbound before you realize that this isn't a quaint throwback, it's modern warfare. For not only do these kids put themselves through months of basic training, they endure the Russian roulette of the competition itself, in which a single letter in the wrong slot sends them off in a body bag.
No wonder ESPN televises the finals every year. And no wonder Blitz, whose mother is Argentinean, got interested in the competition, which he sees as the American melting pot at full boil. Zeroing in on eight contestants who had done well in the previous year's competition, Spellbound offers us a cross-section of today's junior-league strivers, and a surprising number of them hail from the hinterlands. Angela comes from Perrytown, Texas, where her Mexican father, who doesn't speak English, herds cattle for a living. April comes from Ambler, Pennsylvania, where her father tends bar at the Easy Street Pub and her mother sits on the couch while the family dog licks her leg. And Ted comes from Rolla, Missouri, where the main topic of conversation among his peers is the repair of car engines. "It gets lonely," Ted says.
A cloud of loneliness hangs over several contestants, who seem to have spent more quality time with Noah Webster than with their friends and family. Others appear to be in it for the attention, or because it's expected of them (by friends and family), or because they're desperate to excel at something and, if you're an egghead, this is the only game in town. (Have these people not heard of chess?) Emily, the daughter of what I'm guessing is a pair of Yale professors, admits that she doesn't even like to spell all that much. It's just that she's so good at it, drawing on several languages she either knows or knows her way around. That some of the contestants might have gotten a leg up by virtue of their privileged upbringings is one of the main themes of Spellbound. Sure, it helps, except when it doesn't.
Then again, it's hard to beat the combination of a driven child, a driven parent and enough money to mount a full-blown assault on the English language. Neil, an unprepossessing kid from San Clemente, California (Nixon country), wants to win the whole kit and caboodle. In fact, only his father, Rajesh, wants Neil to win more than Neil does. Which explains the Spanish coach, the French coach, the German coach, the Latin coach, the hours upon hours of drilling ' 7,000 to 8,000 words a day. Rajesh, an Indian doctor, has harvested the Land of Opportunity for all it's worth. But just in case that isn't enough, Neil's grandfather has paid for prayer circles back in India and promises to feed 9,000 poor people should the prayers be answered. Dads can be stage moms too, and Mama Rose had nothing on these guys.
Alas, all their entreaties fall on deaf ears when Neil draws the word "Darjeeling" and gets this somebody-shoot-me look on his face. Have his Indian relatives never served him a cup of Darjeeling tea? Perhaps not, assimilation being what the whole competition is about. For the English language itself is a kind of melting-pot stew that takes in words from all over the world and adds them to its polyglot flavor. Under the circumstances, why wouldn't the ethnic-minority contestants have an edge over the WASP-majority contestants? In recent years, the winners' names have been almost as hard to spell as the regular words: Pratyush Buddiga in 2002, Sai Gunturi in 2003. And in Spellbound, Nupur, the unprepossessing (why are they all so unprepossessing?) daughter of Indian immigrants who live in Florida, is a top competitor.
There's something about Nupur ' a quiet confidence. Many of the contestants are quiet, but they don't project confidence. They're worriers, not warriors, and the competition, with its ruthless process of elimination, only heightens their anxiety. Ours too, of course. Beautifully edited, Spellbound is nothing short of spellbinding as we enter the final rounds and kids we've come to care about misspell words that they'll likely be repeating until the day they die, then grimace at the camera and head off to the Comfort Room, where the rest of their lives can finally begin. I'm not sure Blitz adequately explores the masochism of it all ' the pleasure these kids get out of the pain they put themselves through. If you ask me, they seem relieved when they spell a word correctly and equally relieved when they finally screw one up.