The drama of competition is played out through the lives of real competitors from many different backgrounds in Spellbound.
For Thorstein Veblen, the economist who coined the term "conspicuous consumption," spelling in English - a ragtag language rich in quirks - is a striking instance of inefficiency. "English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste," he wrote. "It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection."

It is easy to detect whether a clever schoolchild, trembling alone before a microphone, knows the correct arrangement of letters in "alegar," "apocope," or "heleoplankton." Much time and effort goes into the National Spelling Bee, the annual competition to determine which American student under 16 will not be stumped by our lush, unruly language. Regional bees reduce nine million contestants to 249 finalists. During two grueling days in Washington, D.C., 248 are eliminated. Spellbound, whose witty title alludes to both a 1945 Hitchcock thriller and how genuinely thrilling it can be to conjure up letters to form arcane words, documents the 1999 National Spelling Bee. Director Jeffrey Blitz begins with the back stories of eight finalists from distant locations and varied backgrounds. He gambled that the youngsters he chose to focus on would make it to the finals. Segments set in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Connecticut, Washington, California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey introduce each of the eight spellers, their families, and teachers. Then the cameras move to the capital, for the climactic abecedarian ordeal.

"America is just great," proclaims Rajesh Kadakia, father of 12-year-old Neil, a speller from California. "If you work hard, you'll make it." Immigrants from India, the prosperous Kadakias have made it in America, and for them the spelling bee, in which their daughter earlier excelled, is a version of the American Dream, the belief that opportunity in this country is limited only by talent and effort. That belief is shared by Ubaldo Arenivar, a diligent ranch hand in Perryton, Texas. The success that his daughter, Angela, earns at spelling makes Ubaldo, who immigrated from Mexico 20 years ago and still cannot speak English, feel justified for all his efforts.

Yet the alphabet is not the same for all. Cultural breadth and familiarity with etymology and languages provide advantages. The Kadakias can afford a full-time spelling coach, as well as tutors

Dir. Jeffrey Blitz; feat. Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April DeGideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg, Ashley White (G)
in French and Spanish to help prepare their son. (Neil's grandfather back in India also hires 1,000 people to chant prayers for the boy's success). Emily Stagg, in New Haven, enjoys encouragement from educated, sophisticated parents. But black Ashley White, raised by a single mother, struggles to transcend the mediocrity of her D.C. public school. She is close to tears each time her turn comes up on stage.

"There are a couple of smart kids in my grade but not many," admits Ted Brigham, a gangly misfit from rural Missouri. He fits in better with other young obsessives assembled at the finals. April DeGideo, daughter of a bartender in Ambler, Pennsylvania, studies words as much as nine hours a day. Harry Altman, a loquacious, hyperactive 12-year-old from Glen Rock, New Jersey, is the oddest of the odd lot, but it is remarkable how balanced - and appealing - the spelling nerds seem to be. Despite their dedication, most acknowledge that a bee is not the be-all and end-all of their young lives. They display exemplary sportsmanship.

The National Spelling Bee finals are televised by sports network ESPN, and Blitz's Spellbound is as riveting as any basketball tournament, or Hitchcock feature. The film maintains suspense until the end, through "hellebore," "opsimath," "mattock," and other words that challenge a viewer as much as the contestants. It is prosaic justice that the winner is decided by the word "logorrhea." •

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