The filmmakers of this Academy Award-nominated documentary present us with the stories of eight contestants participating in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. They are Harry, Angela, Ted, April, Neil, Nupur, Emily and Ashley. The aggregation we’re presented is a good sampling of the participants. They come from all parts of the nation, Southern California, the Midwest, and even Washington D.C. where the contest is held. Most are eighth-graders, the final year of eligibility, which affixes extra pressure since there can be no “better luck next year.” They are returning contestants yet to be the last speller standing and first-timers unaware of what they’ve signed up for. Kids who study words every moment they have as if the fate of the Universe hung in the balance and others who are lackadaisical.
We also meet the kids’ family members who range from actively helping their children by enlisting language tutors to one set of parents who don’t speak English even though they’ve been working and living on a Texas ranch for years. All are very happy their children have won local Bees and although some are striving for their child to win, none could be prouder of where their child finishes. No fisticuffs here from parents living vicariously through their children like Little League parents.
After the regional Bees and the prep work, everyone arrives in D.C. to a week of activities before the National Bee starts. Some are overly focused, passing up wonderful events because they cut into studying time. The contest starts with over 200 children and they are weeded out round by round over the course of a couple days with some breaks in between. Rather than eating, most kids use these short breaks as yet another study period. The event has became so big ESPN and ABC have covered the final rounds.
Each child is given a word, the child pronounces the word, and then goes on to spell it. The child is allowed to ask questions regarding the word such as “What’s its definition?” “Can you use it in a sentence?” and “Language of origin for the word?” Then the spelling begins.
After the word is spelled, there is a moment that becomes an eternity before we discover whether or not the word is spelled right. This moment creates tension and excitement in the contestant as well as the audience. If the word is correct, the child returns to their seat in silence, but if incorrect, a bell will chime, like one at a hotel reception desk, signaling a wrong answer. The speller is in limbo after that last letter, some are inaccurately confidant, others surprised by their voraciousness, but over the course of two days, all but one will hear: PING! That erstwhile pleasant sound rings out, then the word is correctly spelled. Some of the children are sent reeling, faces scrunched up, not even hearing the announcer as they walk off. One young lady summed it up perfectly when she was eliminated. “Crap!”
Interspersed among the competition are sequences where we get to meet past winners as they talk about the Spelling Bee. Then we get to meet the odds-on favorite for the competition, Georgie Thampy. Georgie did very well the previous year and the contestants in the know think Georgie is the speller to beat. He is very confident and has an extra edge that he thinks will take him to the top this year. Could he be right?
The one negative I would mention is that for some reason we see the story’s epilogue, before it’s climax. I can understand what the filmmakers were going for, but knowing the outcome and then seeing it really takes away from the emotional impact of the climax. Nothing was gained from the way it’s presented.
Aside from that small quibble, this film is a lot of fun to see, especially with a crowd. It’s one of the few times you don’t mind hearing people talk during a movie as they try to spell and keep up with the kids. Even I got caught up and thought the spelling of some words, but did poorly. I focused on how much smarter the fourteen-year-olds were than me to distract myself from the true depression I would undergo thinking about how much smarter the damn ten-year-olds were. Some words I had never heard of before.
It was a wonderful change of pace to see the glorification of being smart in a society where so many are trying to dumb things down. The honest emotions of love, pride, and joy shown by these families is refreshing to see especially when most of our entertainment is about humiliation and degradation, not that those don’t have their place as well. This is one for the whole family.