I don’t watch many documentaries, and even less in the cinema (excepting maybe Michael Moore’s last two outings). I missed Spellbound during its theatrical run but hired it soon after the rental release.

I needn’t have rushed out because Spellbound isn’t really as fantastic as I was led to believe. The national spelling bee competition in the USA is an incredible and unique phenomenon, and this accurately portrays the lives of half a dozen or so contestants quite well. But this is a one trick pony. After the initial shock of seeing what is required of these kids has passed, there’s not really much else to draw you in.

The participants reference other parents as saying that putting your child through the spelling bee competition is akin to child abuse. This isn’t really evident here, as whilst the parents’ efforts seem inexorable and their expectations high, all the kids seem to be willing participants.

It’s interesting to watch this lively, intelligent and incredibly verbal bunch of kids at work, but once the competition starts there’s not much to do but listen to them umm and ahh their way through the words. This is entertaining, exciting, and at times nail biting.

I haven’t seen any additional features from Spellbound, but I would assume that they followed a greater number of kids than those featured in the documentary, so as to be sure the winner was among those interviewed.

Spellbound is good at what it does, but doesn’t push itself too hard. It has its highs (particularly when interviewing previous spelling bee champions) but there simply isn’t enough here. Some analysis of the history of the spelling bee phenomenon might have been interesting – or maybe this viewer simply wanted to see some tantrums (and maybe a punch thrown) during the competition… Now that would have been entertaining.

Rating: 3 stars
Review by Stuart Wilson, 22nd August 2004
Hoopla Factor: 2 stars

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