Strange Brouhaha

Saturday, October 30, 2004


"Spellbound" is a documentary from last year about eight kids who go to the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C. (I want to know how the filmmaker managed to get lucky enough to end up profiling the winner.) I went in expecting to see the kind of thing that you always see in movies about prodigies, namely a movie exposing the sordid underbelly of naked parental ambition. I expected "No, damn it, Billy, you missed the O AGAIN!" and other such things.

That's not what I got.

I'm not saying that some of the parents aren't driven, but if they're psychotically obsessed the way some parents of athletes are, the filmmaker was careful to keep that sort of thing out of the movie. The parents all came off as proud of their kids, sometimes a bit bemused, always very supportive. These were just regular kids, maybe a little "off" in that way that we all are, who had the ability to both memorize lists of words and reason out the spellings of words they didn't know.

A couple of parts stood out for me.

First, as a 34-year-old man, I was able to spell most of the words that they stopped for. Some of them were tough for different reasons; "cephalalgia" because you really want a y in there ("cephylalgia," which is wrong), "ecclesiastical" because it's really easy to get lost in the middle of it, which the girl who had to spell it did. You know what got me, though? "Distractible," because I wanted to spell it exactly the same way as everyone else wants to: "distractable," which is wrong wrong wrong. Could I have spelled those words at 14? Well, heck yes, but I think I still would've gotten my butt kicked by "distractible."

Second, it was very humorous to see the mother of the kid who got out on "banns" say "I just feel sorry for the kid from Texas who got 'yenta,'" in a fairly thick Noo Yawk accent. "Banns" is one of those words that I picked up reading Katherine Kurtz novels when I was a kid. (Incidentally, the kid who couldn't spell "banns" was the one who spelled "cephalalgia" correctly in the first round. Poor guy.)

Third, I really felt bad for the parents of one of the Indian kids. Here's this kid whose parents drill him every day on thousands of words, and he gets handed what you think would be a slam dunk: "Darjeeling." And he's pretty obviously never heard the word before. His mother had an absolutely priceless expression on her face, his father buries his head in his hands, because they both KNOW that they've never given him this word. It's at once hilarious and a little painful (but what's comedy without pain).

Fourth...did Emily Stagg become famous for something else? She's one of the spellers featured in the movie, and I would be willing to swear that I know her name and face from somewhere. I may be getting confused because the "Where are they now?" picture of her made her look a lot like Alicia Silverstone, but that name just sounds familiar. Maybe, for some bizarre reason, I'm thinking of Ellen Feiss, although I can't imagine why. This will bug me for a few minutes, and then I will move on.

The movie is definitely worth seeing. There are a few uncomfortable moments as they're placing the kids in context; the rancher who employs the father of one of the kids says "He's a good Mexican," for example (and rolls on from there, I might add), and one of the teachers of one of the other kids says "I just love having those Indian kids in mah classroom, they all have such a great work ethic and they're so quiet!" But overall, it's really quite good.


  • (JJB) Yeah, a good flick. Penny found an article in the NYT about the girl from D.C. Dropped out, teenage mom, etc.

    There's a similar documentary in production about this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off(R) Contest that I believe is scheduled to air on cable in February. I worked on the contract, and was one of the first three civilians in the universe to see the rough cut. Cool. Pretty decent flick.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:34 AM  

  • Food Network did a documentary on the Bake-Off a while back. It was also pretty good, but man, some of the food just looked and sounded vile!

    By Blogger Robert, at 9:06 AM  

  • (JJB) Not this year they didn't. Let's just say that the aforementioned network can eat a sack of crap.

    And, yes, some of the recipes are frighteningly vomitrocious.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:09 AM  

  • (Savannah) So JJB, why the desire for Food Network to boldly explore new gustatory horizons? Is it because they're competitors, or because they're jerks?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:17 AM  

  • The latter. And we thought they were so nice, too.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:07 PM  

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