New doc ‘Spellbound’ puts the A in a-w-e-s-o-m-e

Kyle Smith

Books with lots of pages, cars with lots of cylinders, cities with lots of people, Maxim magazine — all of these initially seem impressive but are essentially futile endeavors in American excess. Add to that list the pastime of words with lots of letters, the subject of Jeffrey Blitz’s terrifically entertaining documentary, “Spellbound.”

Blitz followed eight contestants in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. From their regional triumphs to their experience reciting letters to an audience of nicely dressed adults in a Washington hotel, Blitz and his digital cameras recorded nearly 200 hours of footage of these tweens undergoing what one parent describes as “a different form of child abuse.”

Early in the film, the ambitious father of a contestant remarks at the end of an intense, multi-hour spelling exercise that his son “spelled 4,000 words with one error — that’s a good start.” Alternately, a small-town Missourian admits to his loner status while his parents lament his older brother’s pyromania. Scenes like these present the kids in “Spellbound” as diverse as America itself — they are just as rich and poor, rural and urban, black and white, brilliant and lucky, obnoxious and taciturn as the rest of us.

Blitz’s microcosmic view of a spelling bee as pure Americana is initially overshadowed by the candid reality of his subjects. The picture gently humanizes these introverted geniuses as they suffer through their wonder years, offering moving scenes of sacrifice, diligence and love. No matter how much a parent stresses their child’s normalcy, the kid still faces the inescapable reality that they regularly study a dictionary.

Though filmed well before Sept. 11, 2001, the movie’s thematic drive — the precocious spellers as a symbol of the trivia-obsessed melting pot of America — sometimes feels forced and stagnates towards the end. But Blitz’s thesis is finally solidified by both the presence of ESPN crews at the closing rounds of the competition and the articulate words of longtime “pronouncer” Alex Cameron. As Cameron notes, the spelling bee has been an exclusively American fixture for decades, something the proximity of cable television confirms as it exalts and exploits its young athletes.

Although deftly edited throughout, Blitz occasionally dampens the surprisingly tense moments of do-or-die spelling with repetitive techniques and a chiming musical score that becomes a nuisance. Still, the on-screen drama is presented clearly enough — and contains enough creative panache to fill a Christopher Guest film. Blitz’s treatment of the kids is loving without being condescending. He downplays the role of the pushy parents and is more concerned with the independent ambition of the children.

It’s their youthful sense of embarrassment and na