Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, Nupur Lala
No, it's not a remake of the Hitchcock film, though it does have suspense aplenty -- even if it's not the kind you might expect, and maybe not the kind first-time filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz intended.
I'm not sure whether anyone watching Spellbound is likely to care too much about who wins the spelling bee at the heart of this movie. They will, however, care about the tension generated for the participants since it's impossible to watch the movie and not remember -- via the myriad of smaller-scale events that are the blood brothers of this competition -- the heart-stopping terror of your own school days. If you ever hated getting up in front of the class to do anything where you might well make a fool out of yourself -- at that age, a life-or-death matter -- then you're sure to respond to this aspect of Blitz's film.
I am blessed with being a good speller (so much so that friends tend to call me up at odd hours to spell things for them, the phone being easier than the dictionary. Now, when I was the age of the contestants, I didn't so much consider this ability a blessing as a curse. As far back as I can remember, there was nothing in school I dreaded as much as a spelling bee -- I hated the pressure of it even though I was good at it, and being good at it made it just that much worse. My natural tendency was to deliberately spell something incorrectly just so I could sit down and be done with the whole hateful business, except that I similarly didn't want to make a fool of myself by doing this, so I'd slog along till the bitter end. (And bitter it was; there was something just as embarrassing about winning as about losing.) Put mildly, I would rather peel the skin off my face than be subjected to what the kids in this film go through.
I have also never cared for the idea of education as competition, or seeing it reduced to the level of a game show. As a result, I started Spellbound with a very skewed view. I found it impossible to watch the kids involved and not think of the whiz kids in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, and I couldn't help but wonder how many of them would one day resent the time and effort they put into this, would resent the pressure (even if unspoken) from their families that helped bring them to this -- and, worst of all, how many of them would look back and realize they peaked at the age of 12 or 14?
All of this resonates in the background of Spellbound, but was that Blitz's intention? As shrewdly as the director has crafted his film, I was never completely convinced that he actually cared about the kids involved. Oftentimes, he seemed to be focusing so greatly on their peculiarities that it raised the question of whether the eight he chose to follow were selected not due to their chances of winning but more because they were the most colorful. That said, I won't deny that Blitz managed to make a thoroughly engaging, suspenseful documentary out of the most unlikely material -- and he did so with style and skill.
But is there anything about this documentary that makes it worth the trip to the theater versus waiting to see it on home video? Will Spellbound lose anything by not being seen on the big screen? In terms of visuals, no. Watching it on a TV screen will convey exactly the same thing. But it's a film that, I suspect, will lose something if it's not seen with an audience. Blitz so carefully made a film that was designed to work a crowd that it seems a shame not to see it the way he intended.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke