Can You Spell Bee-utiful?

Oscar-nominated Spellbound is letter-perfect

Renée LaReau (center, back) participated in the 1988 National Spelling Bee, where she was eliminated by the word ‘Terpsichore.’

You’re kidding, right?
So maybe watching 250 pimply, precocious adolescents spell words onstage isn’t exactly your idea of a good time?

Hey, don’t be so quick to scoff. ESPN now broadcasts the National Spelling Bee every year, and eight 1999 Bee participants are the subject of Spellbound, a new Oscar-nominated documentary co-directed by Jeffrey Blitz and Sean Welch. Spellbound made its sold-out debut in New York and Los Angeles in the spring and has opened across the country this summer to rave reviews.

An unexpected cross-section of the country
Blitz features eight spellers whose lifestyles are as varied as the dictionary definitions of “determination.”

There’s 13-year-old Ashley, raised in a Washington DC housing project, who likens her life to a movie “where I face trials and tribulations and I overcome them.” Compare her to 13-year-old polo-playing Emily from Connecticut, who happily relinquishes some time with her au pair to make the trip to the Washington, DC Bee with her parents. “It was really nice to have some family time,” she offers.

“In the end, Spellbound is about good ole’ American competition.”

Spellbound viewers also meet Neil from Orange County, California, whose father hires three-foreign language spelling coaches, and Pennsylvania-raised April, whose father tends bar not far from their home. To see the paths of eight different young lives converge in a place where raw, competitive drive and a little luck mask their differences is, well, spellbinding.

In a word, drama
It’s hard to imagine pairing “drama” and “spelling” in a meaningful sentence, but that is exactly the pairing that Blitz pulls off perfectly when he chronicles the three-day competition and all of its novelty: the dreaded ?ding’ of the bell when a speller spells a word incorrectly; a bizarre pre-teen fascination with language and non-athletic competition; bewildered parents watching their brainy offspring spell words they’ve never heard of.

There’s a strange and captivating fascination one feels while watching these spectacled wunderkinds on the stage in the Grand Hyatt Ballroom. How can these kids spell “diaphanous?” Or what about “septuagenarian?” Or “perichoresis?” And what drives a teenager to study words like that for months?

In the end, Spellbound is about good ole’ American competition. Spelling may not be the Great American Pastime, and dictionaries and word lists are novel, if nerdy, training equipment. But hey, ESPN thought it was worth some attention, and you might think so too.