Friday, February 13, 2004


I didn't exactly miss the documentary SPELLBOUND, a movie that focuses on eight kids competing in the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, so much as I avoided it for fear of awakening some slumbering teenage trauma. I was a spelling bee competitor once myself, and though I joke about it now, I went down to defeat when I was in eighth grade because I believed that writers were good spellers. The night before the local competition, I read Richard Brautigan's "Trout Fishing in America," and Brautigan, in his hippie whimsical way, decided to spell mayonnaise with a single 'n'. The word stuck in my head, and the next day...well, what was my defense? Too many bellbottoms on the brain? I think I retreated into Shakespeare for a while after that. But I bet he wasn't a good speller originally, either.

So, a year after its feature release, I rented SPELLBOUND (get the DVD! excellent extras, and a wonderful menu) and couldn't stop watching. The short version is: it's a terrific movie, both for the obvious reasons--it's a competition, and yet, as several of the kids point out, there is an element of randomness in it--and two slightly unexpected ones: the kids are a wild mosaic of incomes and cultures, and they're all at least a little eccentric. There's Neil, whose father has completely cracked the spelling bee code AND hired his son several spelling and language coaches. They live in San Clemente, California, land of Nixon, and they are part of the boom in striving and relatively affluent Indian spellers. At the very other end of the spectrum is Ashley, an African American girl who lives in a very tough part of D.C., and delivers a brief, but blistering critique, of the playground--boys are always playing ball, and the girls "just stand around." Ashley describes herself a "prayer warrior," and while I am a wild and proud unbeliever, I was fascinated by how often prayer came up in this documentary. The movie also manages to talk about how spelling bees have, from their inception, been a rite of passage for immigrants to prove that they belonged, that they had mastered the language--of English, of competition. I bawled several times.

And yes, one of the words is "mayonnaise."


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