Spellbound (2002)
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz

Smart and somehow thrilling documentary about eight kids out to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee. You wouldn't think there would be much emotion packed into footage of kids spelling words, but there's more genuine suspense, heartbreak, and triumph to this than in the last 400 seasons of "American Idol."

The film does a quietly magnificent job of introducing each competitor and providing their social context: rich, poor, driven, depressed, loved, oppressed. Each family is packaged quickly through small observable details instead of directive narration, so you end up feeling the ups and downs rather than thinking about them.

The kids are great—from every walk of life, representing every walk of nerd. Depending on which one you identify with, certain segments are quite painful to watch … in the same way as watching footage of your own junior high years would be.

Where the film really wins is at the end, where it doesn't go for the obvious Rudy/Rocky underdog payoff—in fact, it sidesteps the ultimate victory in favor of following up with each kid as they are eliminated from the contest.

Rarely has a movie so quirky and honest provided such edge-of-your-seat momentum. Spellbound has a lot to say, but it never spells it out (sorry), and that's its greatness.

Jeers, though, to the meathead hipster jackass in the theatre where I saw it, who was laughing a little too loud at the funny moments. Yeah, okay buddy, you're smarter than us all, and you get the film harder and deeper than everyone. Fuckwit. Of course, I won't hold that against the movie itself.

Review by Gertie Payne