In the atrocious Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, eight 7th and 8th grade American children are introduced as they prepare to compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. It’s peculiar that director Jeff Blitz would chose eight subjects (apparently whittled down from 12) for his 97-minute movie, the second half of which takes place entirely at the climactic spelling competition. The reason becomes bluntly obvious as the film grinds on: Blitz is not a filmmaker interested in his subjects, but only in manipulating their experiences for entertainment value. Spellbound is a documentary so audience-friendly it requires no Hollywood remake—usually stuffy critics at the press screening I attended were by turns rolling in the aisles at the amusing little vignettes featuring the kids and their doting, none-too-bright parents, then gripping the arms of their seats in anticipation as the kids stare down gargantuan words like “cephalagia” and “logorrhea”.
That kind of reaction points to exactly why Spellbound is an utterly rancid experience from start to finish. This is the kind of movie that stoops to create a running gag with one family’s showboating dog, who joyfully licks its owner’s leg during an interview and then is conspicuously perched asleep in the foreground every time the film cuts back to her. It’s the kind of film that aggressively milks its young subjects’ cute factor for all its worth (including one hyperactive monster whose mother clearly deserves some kind of medal for raising him), and cheerfully embraces pointless segments of old people bickering while hastily cutting away when one father has the audacity to get serious and observe that he hasn’t done much with his life.
The great thing about documentary filmmaking is that it has the opportunity to make us feel intimate with real people, like their lives are somehow happening to us as well—as is the case with Steve James’s just-released Stevie, the kind of beautiful, awe-inspiring film that you’re lucky to come across more than two or three times a decade. Spellbound is the anti-Stevie; you’d be hard-pressed to find a segment of the film that spends more than five minutes with any of its youngsters, much less attempts to get inside their lives and figure out why spending 10 hours a day digging through dictionaries is so important to them. Their parents—some of whom are tender and affectionate, some of whom are clueless to their kids’ feelings, one of whom is downright grotesque as he explains the “training” regiment he designed for his son—are all brushed off as harmless quirks and oddballs for us to chuckle at and thus feel superior to.
A dissection of class and upbringing is ignored, as the film refuses to utilize the extremities of the eight kids’ backgrounds (some poor Americans, some rich immigrants) as more than filler. The kids themselves, most of whom seem unable to grasp either the magnitude or the triviality of what they’re doing, are often forgotten—the film digs no deeper than their desire to make it far enough in the bee to appear on the ESPN broadcast of the event, and possibly Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show. It becomes insulting when the film drops in hints that most of these kids are alienated from others their age and have little-to-no social life, and then Windexes it away with a teacher blithely noting that when the kids come to the spelling bees they can discover that there are plenty of other outcasts in the world just like them.
The film manages to generate some suspense as to which of its champions will survive the pressure and take home the trophy, but the movie collapses on itself in the last half hour as it begins ambushing the eliminated kids as they’re escorted off the stage, coercing them into giving bland “I’m happy, I tried my best” sound bites that have the stifling sterility of a nightly news sportscast. Is this what good documentary filmmaking is supposed to be: a bunch of scattered, impersonal clips that don’t even have an ounce of the attentiveness found on your average Dateline NBC segment? Spellbound barely belongs on TV, much less a movie screen. At best it’s sub-PBS material; at worst it’s infuriating, the kind of soporific exercise whose thinly cloaked malice toward its subjects can only make a mockumentary jester like Christopher Guest jealous. There are plenty of hefty nouns and verbs thrown out during Spellbound, but it’s a movie that clearly never picked up a thesaurus to check out adjectives like honest or sincere. In fact, there’s only one word it can spell without any trouble whatsoever: B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T.