I’ve been dying to get a documentary into the When Can I Watch With My Kids
column. And now, as we’re celebrating back-to-school-type films like Diary of a Wimpy Kid
and Mean Girls
, this seems like the ideal time to showcase one of my all-time favorite films, an inspirational tribute to academic achievement and the fortitude of the adolescent spirit.
I’m not sure which came first: ESPN’s extensive coverage of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee; or Spellbound
, Jeffrey Blitz’s spirited and appropriately spellbinding spelling-bee documentary which added intrigue and heartbreak to the annual event.
Either way, I know I paid little attention to the enthusiastic spellers descending on Washington, D.C. each year for the Super Bowl of spelling before seeing Spellbound. With luck, Blitz’s doc can help open your own child’s eyes to the hard work and perseverance it takes to succeed at this or any similar event.
So, let’s write study words on our index cards, learn how to properly spell L-O-G-O-R-R-H-E-A, and figure out when you can watch Spellbound with your kids.
Red Flags: “Congradulations Nupur!”
There are barely any objectionable moments in Blitz’s winning doc, making it an easy recommendation for you and your children.
The director selected eight American kids from all socio and economic backgrounds for his film, crafting a comprehensive chart of the diverse children interested in competing. Though they come from various walks of life, they share a passion for spelling. Nupur, for instance, is a driven competitor with Indian parents who respect the value of a strong education. Ted is a lumbering, shy kid who’s blessed with an innate ability to spell. And then there’s Henry, an uneasily spastic kid from New Jersey who speaks in a robot’s voice when he’s nervous. I dare you not to root for any (or all) of them to emerge from the competition as champions.
But you know that’s not possible. At least seven, and possibly even eight, will lose before Blitz’s credits role, giving us parents a great opportunity to talk to our kids about winning, losing, and finding the courage just to compete.
That’s not to say there aren’t red flags, discussion points that we can elaborate on after a Spellbound screening. As the film reminds us, the kids competing in the regional and national spelling bees are under tremendous amounts of stress and pressure. The sound of a bell, indicating the misspelling of a word, can mean the swift end of a lifelong dream.
Blitz shows parental pressure, as well. Neil, from California, is coached up by his parents to be a spelling bee Terminator. “When you fight in a war, everybody has the same goal,” Neil’s mother says about how training their son for the national spelling bee has become a family effort, and failure is not an option. At one point, one of Neil’s tutors tells Blitz that the boy’s father has promised to feed 5,000 people back home in India if his son wins! She actually admits to the camera, “So there’s actually a lot more at stake for Neil than just winning the bee.” Wow! Yet even with this harsh training, Neil’s father makes a great point about how anything worth achieving requires hard work.
Spellbound addresses obvious social pressures. Ted’s teacher admits that school can be difficult for kids who are thought of as “different,” and these kids qualify simply because they care too much and try too hard.
These kids also put enormous pressure on themselves, as well. Awkward April feels she can’t even go to the mall with her friends because she needs to study her spelling words. Emily fears disappointing her parents if she doesn’t do as well in the bee as she did the year before.
Then there’s Emily’s mother, who shares an eye-opening story of another parent who kept their daughter out of the competition to shield her from the oppressive pressure of competition. At the same time, Spellbound registers the subtle, illuminated facial expressions that can communicate immense parental pride when a son or daughter succeeds. The film also reminds parents of the importance of collaborating with their children on something that interests them, of showing support, spending time with them, and perfecting their studies.
But Spellbound isn’t limited to spelling. Its lessons apply to all competition, whether academic or athletic. These young competitors suffer nerves. They know it often comes down to luck. On the eve of the bee, they have such realistic expectations. They admit they might not win. They dream of appearing on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show for a post-victory interview. They say they’ve studied enough. It’s so healthy. I love these kids so very much. Allow me to gush about them some more in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!”
I can’t say enough about the wonderful children Blitz selected to profile for Spellbound. They are like eight Rocky Balboas, with better speech patterns. And the pure joy expressed by these kids when they triumph in a spelling bee will make your heart soar.
As the husband of a teacher, I also can’t say how refreshing it is to find a film celebrating kids who are interested in learning, in bettering themselves through academics. Too often in Hollywood productions, teenagers are jaded, bitter husks barely tolerating teachers and doing what they can to avoid school. Spellbound sings a different tune, and should be recognized for its efforts.
I don’t think it’s going too far to call the Spellbound kids role models for your own children. In spelling, they have found a chance to be the best at something for the first time in their lives. It’s thrilling. I also love seeing the support these kids get from their school mates, their community members, local media, and more. I think my favorite shot in the entire film is when a young male competitor turns around to shake a girl’s hand after she guesses on a particularly difficult word and gets it right. They both look so relieved! It’s one of many joyous moments in this wonderful film.
Spellbound also provides a compelling reminder to your children of how kids their age lead vastly different lives in different parts of the country. Blitz handpicks kids from Texas, Florida, California, Missouri, and even the urban outskirts of D.C. Ted’s family talks about maybe putting their oldest child in the military because he needs discipline, while Emily pouts (slightly) because her parents aren’t paying to fly the family Au Pair to D.C. to watch the competition.
Most important, Spellbound is just a crowd pleaser. It’s a non-violent Karate Kid, a triumph of the underdogs who prevail by sticking their noses to the grindstone and leaving it all on the playing field. It’s an inspirational education film the entire family can enjoy on so many different levels. And that’s why, in the final section, I’m going to say …
Spellbound is perfect for everybody. Parents, trust me -- you will be moved to tears. And your youngest children will understand the nature of competition, as Blitz shoots and edits his actual bee footage (in the second half of his short film) like a sporting event.
But older kids, those who are roughly the same as the 11- or 12-year-old competitors, will better appreciate the monumental words that are being tackled, and the roller coaster ride of emotions that come with succeeding or failing at different levels of the competition.
Still, Spellbound takes such a rewardingly healthy approach to education, to competition, and to parental love and support, that I think it is the ideal film for you to share with your budding scholar.
As cliché as it sounds, your entire family will be spellbound.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Lucas, The Monster Squad and The Sound of Music, to name just a few.