This Oscar-nominated documentary is about a spelling bee - the national Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee, in fact. Well, for those of you who haven't headed for the hills already, you'll find a charming little film that takes a look at eight interesting children from greatly varying backgrounds. One Texas girl has immigrant parents who don't spend much English. There's a boy from rural Missouri and an upper-middle class kid whose parents hire a tutor, pays people in India to chant for his success and goes through over 7,000 words per day in training. Another child growing up in the Washington, DC projects goes to nationals, and her mother rightly states that her daughter's good work is not recognized - instead, the media focuses on crime in the area.
Director Jeffrey Blitz really doesn't start off in the midst of the preparation, instead really focusing on the family life of each of the students and, as a result, sheding a little bit of light on several issues within our country, how a parent's desire for their children to suceed can sometimes make them suffer under the pressure and take them away from things they should be doing at their age (none of the kids in this group seem entirely thrilled to be in the bee, and those who are eliminated seem relieved that the pressure is over), as well as how intelligence can separate children from their peer group, whether they like it or not.
Although many have described "Spellbound" as remarkably tense, I don't know if I could quite go that far. However, the film's editing does manage to make a fairly low-key (not helped by Daneil Hulsizer's somewhat generic, lightweight score) tale of eight children into something fun and involving. There are some tense moments during the end, largely because we've gotten to know these kids enough that we do root for them, and cringe when they cringe, desperately trying to decipher the word they've been given. The kids are all bright and quite different, ranging from low-key Ted from Missouri to New Jersey's Henry, whose sentences seem to have no beginning or end - the only transition being his unusual, hyper little laugh.
I'm a bit surprised that the film took off theatrically as much as it did, because its budget and appearance suggests something more along the lines of a well-done PBS (or, in this case, ESPN, as the bee is actually broadcast each year on the network known more for sports) special. Still, I liked the film and hope that a documentary on some of the topics (parental pressure, children growing up in different economic backgrounds, bright children finding themselves as outcasts in school) that this film briefly brings to the table.
VIDEO: "Spellbound" is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame. Some places do list the film's aspect ratio as 1.85:1, yet the picture seems as if it was originally framed for the full-screen 1.33:1 ratio. The presentation quality is generally quite good, as the image maintains a concise, well-defined appearance throughout most - if not all - of the show.
The picture does display a few instances of shimmer and some slight compression artifacts, but otherwise remains clear and clean in appearance. Colors look natural and bright, with good saturation and no smearing. Flesh tones look accurate, as well.
SOUND: "Spellbound" is presented in Dolby 2.0. This is generally a very enjoyable soundtrack. When played back in Pro Logic II, surrounds do offer a little bit of crowd noise and occasional ambience, but otherwise remain silent. Dialogue seemed a little muffled at one of the early matches, but the finals and other interview footage offered clear, clean audio.
EXTRAS: Jeffrey Blitz, editor Yana Gorskaya, sound re-recording engineer Sean Welch and the film's producer chat throughout the film. The four provide a pretty enjoyable discussion of the film, talking further about some of the backgrounds of the participants, chatting about how they found the kids, editing and some of the behind-the-scenes bee information.
The DVD also offers bios of the kids and filmmakers, "Where Are They Now?" info about the kids, additional bonus footage, an interactive game and trailers for "Spellbound" and additional Columbia/Tristar titles, such as "Winged Migration".
Final Thoughts: "Spellbound" is an enjoyable documentary feature that provides an entertaining look at the national spelling bee and some of its participants. I wouldn't have minded if the picture was a little longer and explored some of the issues that it brings up in the first half. Tristar's DVD edition provides a good deal of supplements and fine audio/video quality. A recommended rental.
The Film ***