Every year, over nine million children take part in spelling bees across
the nation. 249 of them win a chance to compete at the National Spelling
Bee in Washington D.C., and only one of them will be crowned champion.
This independent documentary film profiles eight hopeful spellers and
follows them to the 1999 Nationals. Sounds dull doesn't it?
I mean who would be interested in competitive spelling, of all things?
Well producer/director Jeffery Blitz takes this sedate topic and makes
it really interesting. He accomplishes this task by letting you get
to know the children first. And once they get into competition, you
start feeling some of the pressure they do.
This movie is broken up into two acts. The first part give a sketch
of each speller. What their home life is like, how they study, and
why they do it. You find out that champion speller come from all
walks of life. Angela's father is an immigrant farm hand from Mexico and
doesn't speak any English. Emily comes from an upper middle class
family and takes riding lessons. Nupur and Neil both have families
that have roots in India. Emily is a lower middle class African-American
from Washington, and Ted is a loner from rural Missouri. Their study
habits are quite different. One person makes crossword puzzles with
cutout letters, others have paid coaches and computer programs to
help them. Another hopeful has his father quiz him on over 7,000
words a day. One child studies an hour a day, while another studies
After you learn a little bit about the participants, the focus shifts
to the National Bee. Here I started rooting for my favorite kids.
I'd hold my breath when they were asked a word I'd never heard of before,
much less have a chance at spelling. (How often does "cephalalgia"
or "callipygian" come up in casual conversation?) After you've seen
how much hard work they have put in, you hate to see them get eliminated.
As the field dwindles, the tension grows. I was startled to find
myself on the edge of my seat at the end.
The director did a wonderful job getting audience to care about the
spellers and then showing them in competition. The true star of this
movie is editor Yana Corskaya. It was masterful the way she would
show the progression of the national and preliminary spelling bees with
out it getting boring, or wasting valuable time. She found a way
to condense the bees to their essence, without losing any of the tension
or drama. The way the movie would cut to the interviews with
the families in the middle of a round worked very well. It
not only served as a reminder of where the speller came from (both literally
and economically) but it also underlined the tension of the scene.
An excellent job.
This movie is presented with an English stereo mix and a French dub.
With no explosions or fancy sound effects, this DVD won't give your system
a work out, but it does sound clean and clear for the most part.
There were a couple of places where a hum found its way in, but it was
always brief. The dialog and spelling was easy to hear.
A very appropriate sounding movie.
The IMDB lists the aspect ratio of this movie as 1.85:1, but the movie as presented on this disc is full frame. I originally assumed that the IMDB was correct, since
this film was released theatrically, but I have received some e-mail stating that the OAR is 1.33:1. So I did a little digging. The official web page for the movie
doesn't list an aspect ratio, but I was able to find a couple of sources that listed the aspect ratio as 1.33:1. I have altered my review to reflect this.
The picture looked very good. The lines were crisp and clean, and the colors were accurate. There was a few time when parallel lines in the background or on a
shirt that would flutter due to digital encoding errors, but these were minor and occurred infrequently. The bad news is that they used a good amount of edge
enhancement on this disc. There are many scenes where people are surrounded but slight halos. If you have a smaller television, you may not notice it, but it may get
distracting on a larger viewing screen.
The Spellers: Text biographies
of the spellers featured in the film. This doesn't reveal anything
that doesn't come out in the film.
Where are They Now?: Another
text based feature that gives updates on the children featured in the movie.
They also include a recent photo. This was a interesting to read,
and I'm glad they included it.
Bonus Footage: Profiles and
tournament footage of three more spellers. These were most likely
cut for reasons of time. They were interesting kids, but not as interesting
as the ones that were featured in the movie.
About the Filmmakers: Text
biographies of the director, producer and editor.
Interactive Hangman Game:
A version of the classic hangman game you can play on a computer equipped
with a DVD Rom.
Educational Guide: Another
DVD-Rom feature. A history of spelling bees, word lists, how to host
your own spelling bee and other spelling related files.
Trailers for Spellbound, Winged Migration, and Endurance.
Commentary: The director,
producer, editor and sound engineer give their thoughts on the movie.
At the beginning, they state that director Jeffrey Blitz won't be talking
much because he has a stutter that is exacerbated by microphones.
This is not the case, he chimes in regularly throughout the commentary.
It's a fairly interesting voice over. They talk about how the idea
originated and how they located the children that they would follow.
There were some good anecdotes. My favorite concerned Ted, the quiet
loner. Apparently they were in his town to profile another speller
who was expected to do well at the national level. He ended up losing
the regional bee early on, and Ted won. So they did a profile on
Ted instead, and found him quite interesting. They also explain why
they didn't profile Georgie, a speller who was touted at the national bee
as being the likely winner. They also talk a good deal about the
decisions they had to make while editing the film. Well worth listening
This is a very interesting and entertaining movie. It deserved the Academy Award nomination it received in 2002 in the category of Best Documentary. The story
telling was very good, and the editing outstanding. I recommend picking a copy up.