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June 6, 2003

Can you spell D-I-Z-O-P-E?

Place: Washington, D.C. Year: 1999. Occasion: National Spelling Bee. Contestants: 249 spellers. 248 losers. One shot for glory.

Engrossing documentaries often focus on some freak segment of society, zeroing in on strange people who have strange passions. People are exploited and audiences are entertained. Sometimes you leave feeling amused, and also, guilty. Spellbound, I was sure, would have the same effect by using dorky kids in braces and parents living vicariously through their children.

But Spellbound was nothing of the sort. Amazing in its objectivity, the film revealed the contestants to be, well, kids. Granted kids who can spell things like cephalalgia and heleoplankton (or almost spell the latter, just mistaking the second E for an I), but kids nonetheless. Despite their incredible spelling abilities, most of the eight kids the film tracked appeared remarkably normal, and their parents patiently supportive.

Of course, this was not always the case. Like with Nupur, who purportedly began memorizing phrases like "I have no opportunity" at the tender age of two and a half. "She was two and a half and she had 'no opportunity,'" her mother joked in an interview.

Then there's Neil, a handsome ninth-grader from San Clemente, California. His father, a long-time parent of spelling bee contestants, had formulated ten steps for success. While discussing the heavy pressure of such competition on his son, who trained several hours each day, he told us, "What is valuable in life that is easy to achieve? Nothing." During the actual bee, Neil's grandfather in India had 1,000 people chanting and praying for him. If he were to win, he promised to feed 5,000 people.

Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz saved the best for last. Held until the end, except for the very first sequence in the film, is a small boy named Harry who literally bounced off the walls arriving late to steal the show. Harry has a special kind of energy that defies description, or we could just call it a hyperactivity disorder. His defeat brought both disappointment and relief to viewers, who unanimously winced each time he began twitching. All I could think was, "Please dear god, what would happen if they took the Ritilin away from him?" But that's not to say I didn't want him to win. I wanted all of them to win. The ferocious amounts of training and sacrifice put forth by these children was truly mind-numbing.

Although gifted with the ability to spell words that most professors have never heard of, they struggled with everyday words, like corollary, wheedle, and darjeeling. Living a bizarre and stressful life for kids their age, the eight contestants in Spellbound managed to do so with surprising grace and insight, driven by two things: their love for spelling, and their desire to be the best.

Though you've probably never fantasized about becoming a national spelling champ, your palms will sweat. Your heart will palpitate. Blitz has tapped into that innate human desire for glory, using an eccentric device, but a suspenseful one nonetheless. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Spellbound is a well-crafted peek into the lives of those kids in elementary school who never played with you at recess, but only because they had 400 words to memorize before dinner.