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Letter Rip: Young spelling bee contestants agonize over every letter in the new documentary 'Spellbound.'


'Spellbound,' the thinking-person's 'American Idol,' highlights the bee-team

By Richard von Busack

MAYBE THE EDITORS are right--there must be some sort of powerful magic in the properly spelled word. In producer Sean Welch and director Jeff Blitz's delightful documentary Spellbound, we follow eight children in the semifinals of the 72nd Annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee in 1997, held in Washington, D.C. What's most bizarre about these spelling bees is the supernatural malignancy with which certain words attack. It can't be coincidence. That kid from Texas, a state where Kinky Friedman still represents a large portion of the Jewish population? He gets "yenta." The most openly Christian child is foiled by the word "ecclesiastical." And that boy who's from a background of materialist striving that would seem overdone if it turned up in a Balzac novel? This boy gets kicked out for misspelling "hellebore," a poetical plant that mostly blooms in the Oxford Book of English Verse, a flower that cures madness. Apparently it doesn't cure spelling madness.

Scrabble players may not know that a national spelling bee allows foreign words, making them even more diabolical. After comparatively easy everyday words like "lycanthrope," "Darjeeling," "rhomboid" or "iridescent," in come the real bastards: "alegar," "apocope" and "clavescin."

Following a group of intrepid children, Blitz (an immigrant's son himself) underscores how many immigrants are drawn to this, the most nerdly of nerd practices. He frames this battle as a touching display of pride in the acquired language. Spelling champ Angela Arenivar is a cowherd's daughter from Perryton, Texas. Her father is a Mexican immigrant who still doesn't speak English ("The cows don't speak English, either," he says). Neil Kadakia, whose father is a successful Indian immigrant businessman in San Clemente ("It is impossible to fail in this country," he insists), is drilled like a military cadet. His grandfather back in the old country also assigned thousands of dollars to pay for all-night prayers for Neil's success. You can predict what God thinks of this tactic. Other parents hire tutors in each individual foreign language that might be ransacked for an obscure word by the judges. There's a $10,000 prize, but the stress is high, and how much respect do these winners get? As one old ex-champion notes, winning the trophy doesn't exactly do wonders for your love life. And young Ted Chapman, from rural Missouri, even has the outrage of seeing his name misspelled on the sign congratulating him outside his high school.

I was strongly partisan in favor of April from southeast Pennsylvania, who seemed the shyest, and the saddest--a barkeeper's daughter living in a factory town that hadn't yet recovered from the closure of the asbestos mill. Other viewers will have their own favorites, but all the contestants are sketched out nicely. Blitz cuts away at the moment of triumph to add to the suspense of this contest. At the end, you agree with that pro-forma thing judges say: everyone who stood up to this torrent of sesquipedalian words is a winner.

Spellbound (Unrated; 95 min.), a documentary by Jeffrey Blitz, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose.

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From the May 22-28, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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