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Directed by Jeffrey Blitz, starring Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg and Ashley White.

It may not be the Hitchcock classic, but Jeffrey Blitz's 'Spellbound' - a light- hearted documentary following eight US teenagers to the National Spelling Bee final - is enough of a thriller to keep the Master of Suspense himself happy.

Every year nine million children compete in the first round of the National Spelling Bee. Just 249 make it through to the knock-out finals, which are televised live on the ESPN sports channel - and there can only be one winner in this spelling version of 'Survivor'.

First-time feature director Jeffrey Blitz focuses on eight of the contestants from different areas and backgrounds, profiling the spellers and their families in the run-up to the 1999 final in Washington DC. Blitz films them all in a non-judgemental manner with his primary focus their motivation and circumstances.

The spelling bee is a melting pot where the daughter of a single mother in the DC projects stands side by side with a meditation-practising East Indian boy from San Clemente and an outsider from rural Missouri competes with a privileged girl from Connecticut.

Blitz skilfully draws out the kids, unobtrusively filming them, their families and their obsessive study methods. Some have elaborate computer programmes, multiple tutors and parents who work with them for hours. Others have their own home-grown methods of learning: Angela's Mexican-immigrant parents don't speak any English while fellow contestant April concentrates on her battered dictionary.

Although the pace lags a little when the children finally get to DC, the tension becomes almost unbearable. Watching the contestants - especially hyperactive Harry who grimaces like a torture victim - struggle with obscure words like 'cephalalgia' and 'heleoplankton', it's easy to agree with one of the interviewees who calls it a "different form of child abuse".

A gripping, empathetic and warmly humorous documentary, 'Spellbound' is not so much about words as the American dream made real. With his first documentary Blitz has struck the jackpot - 'Spellbound' casts an almost irresistible...spell.

Caroline Hennessy

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