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spellbound How could a film about the National Spelling Bee get nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar? Well, not only is this a hugely entertaining film, but its depth makes it more than worthy to stand up there alongside the winner, Bowling for Columbine. As Jeff Blitz follows eight contenders to the spelling championship in Washington DC, he paints a vivid portrait of America's multi-cultural make-up. Each of these teens has a different background ... and his or her own reasons to compete.

For this moment, the nerds rule! From Texas, 14-year-old Angela's parents crossed the border illegally from Mexico to give their children a better education. Meanwhile in leafy Connecticut, the confident and intelligent Emily, also 14, lives a privileged life. Ted has trouble fitting in at a rural Missouri school where athletic prowess is more important than brains. In Washington DC, 13-year-old Ashley is a smiley black girl in a houseful of women cheering her on. Nupur's family emigrated from India to Florida, where she engages in good-natured competition with her classmates. Another Indian, Neil is only 12 and lives in San Clemente with his over-achieving parents, who never stop strategizing Neil's victory. In Pennsylvania, April seems a bit obsessed and tired, but hilariously refers to her parents as "Archie and Edith" (for good reason!). And in New Jersey, the talkative, natural-born comic Harry keeps us laughing with his antics both at home and on stage.

These are astonishingly smart kids with an extraordinary grasp of languages and the ability to think on their feet, and yet all are outsiders in their communities. Even their families don't quite know what to do with their brainy children, besides encourage them. While this slice-of-Americana is powerfully revealing, Blitz films the competitions in a way that keeps us gasping for breath; this is a jumble of comedy, drama and severe edge-of-seat suspense from the first to the last word. And the words are absolutely insane (we actually jump out of our seats on the rare occasion when we can spell one). This is a brilliantly made film that captures the individuality of its characters with respect and wit. My favourite image works on so many levels: The message "Congradulations Nupur" in front of the Hooters bar in Tampa. (If you've never heard of Hooters, this is an establishment that respects a woman's anatomy, not her brain.)

cert U some themes 11.Jun.03

dir Jeff Blitz
with Nupur Lala, Angela Arenivar, Harry Altman, Emily Stagg, Ted Brigham, Ashley White, Neil Kadakia, April Degideo, Alex Cameron, Paige Kimble, Frank Neuhauser, Samye Hill release US 30.Apr.03; UK 10.Oct.03
02/US 1h37

Everyone wants the last word: Eight teens head for the 1999 National Spelling Bee.

23rd Shadows Awards

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send your review to Shadows... spellbound Still waiting for your comments ... don't be shy.
2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall