Movie review: ‘Spellbound’

June 13, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

A wonderfully bizarre transformation occurs in Harry Altman when the rubbery 12-year-old is stumped by a word during the National Spelling Bee: He turns into Jim Carrey.

In the documentary “Spellbound,” Harry stands at the microphone and is lobbed the word “banns,” a seemingly slayable little noun that wraps its tentacles around Harry’s brain and squeezes tight.

The boy chokes, and the struggle within his head is displayed in an anarchy of facial contortions that would make Tex Avery blush. His face resembles a wrestling match under a sheet, twisting this way and that, stretching, crinkling, tongue flailing, eyes bulging.

Looking as if he sipped strychnine, not so much stalling as trying to shake free the proper letters, Harry is told by the judges to get a move on. We worry about the child.

“Spellbound” works on us like that. We start to worry about the eight children who are its subjects as we follow them from home and school to the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., the Olympiad of word nerds. We want the lot of them to win, vanquishing gnarly, polysyllabic octopi like “cephalagia” with hand-on-hip aplomb.

But of course not all triumph, and the tension that mounts as the kids painstakingly excavate letters from their heads like paleoanthropic bones — epochs seem to pass between each halting D and Y — is as gripping as anything in theaters right now. (That includes “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which seems to have spelling difficulties of its own.)

The thrills and misspells in director Jeff Blitz’s remarkable debut — it was nominated at this year’s Oscars and won the jury award for best documentary at South by Southwest in 2002 — spring from a gently probing narrative about those kids in school you either haughtily ignored or on whom you inflicted industrial-strength wedgies. Unless, um, you were one of them.

The subjects, ages 12 to 14, are a bookish bunch, whose spectacles, braces and gangly physiques don’t fuel their chances for cool-dom. They come from all parts of the United States — an affluent Southern California enclave to a Texas Panhandle farm — forming a tidy mosaic of cultural and demographic diversity.

And they come with fascinating backstories that become the film’s collective front story. Angela Arenivar’s parents are ranch hands, Mexican immigrants who barely speak English. Against all odds, she takes it upon herself to beat the bee. Ashley White is an African American girl who lives with her siblings and single mother in the D.C. projects. And Neil Kadakia is a rich kid whose stringent father is the Great Santini of spelling.

“Spellbound” begins as a engaging window into American lives ripe with thematic resonance: cultural values, regional disparities, the funny and troubling mechanics of the modern family unit, scholastic ambition and the availability of the American dream to those who reach.

It’s powerful and affecting material, giving the film its dramatic ballast. But it’s the bee that stings. Scenes of little kids spelling big words are the movie’s equivalent of a fire-strewn car chase; this is the action.

Nervous entertainment enfolds us as we watch contestants try to deconstruct words by scribbling them on the palm of their hand with a finger or mouthing various spellings before committing to one. It’s nerve-wracking to see a face scrunch into an asterisk of concentration, yet it’s a joy to see a curtain of euphoric relief come down when a speller nails it, as though he or she got an empty chamber in Russian roulette. One of many priceless moments happens when a stunned contestant does a near-double-take after she improbably spells “Chateaubriand.”

Yet no one can surpass Harry in facial acrobatics. In a film that defies cinematic possibility, Harry radiates an irresistible über-geekiness that’s as eccentric as it is endearing. More comic relief than star, he’s something of a spastic, a breathless chatterbox with protuberant ears, a perfect bowl of hair and an amazing seal-bark laugh. Somehow he worries us even when he’s not competing.

Editor Yana Gorskaya gives “Spellbound” a fine-weave and impeccable timing for drama and laughs. She shapes what could have been a cacophony of human interest into a harmonic narrative that moves almost musically: Competitive tension is the drum roll, defeat the quick clang of a bell and odd, colorful Harry the blazing guitar solo.

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