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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.

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