Pittsburgh, PA
December 11, 2018
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
A & E
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Travel Getaways
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  A & E >  Movies/Videos Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story

'Spellbound' is a thrilling bee

Friday, June 13, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Except for my nearest and dearest human beings, the thing I love most is English. But there's one word I hate and boycott forever: "barbarous." As a cocky fifth-grader from Turner School in Wilkinsburg, I was so confident at the Buhl Planetarium spelling bee that I had the prize money all spent (at Kaufmann's stamp department). But I had never heard the word before. All I knew was "barbarian" so I spelled it, to my lasting shame, "barbarious" -- and thus fell in the second round.

Angela Arenivar, daughter of Spanish-speaking parents, competes in the 1999 spelling bee in "Spellbound."



STARRING: Harry Altman, Angela Arenivar, Ted Brigham, April Degideo, Neil Kadakia, Nupur Lala, Emily Stagg, Ashley White

DIRECTOR: Jeff Blitz

"Spellbound" has no hero or heroine -- just eight fabulous co-stars, a cross-section of brilliant young American scholars driven to compete for the top National Spelling Bee prize. We will be following them one by one as they prepare for the great event in Washington, D.C., and everybody will get to know his or her favorite among them.

There's Angela Arenivar in Perryton, Texas, whose parents illegally crossed into the United States from Mexico years earlier and have never really learned to speak English to this day.

Several other of the spelling finalists are likewise, amazingly enough, from first-generation families, including two Indian-Americans, Neil Kadakia and Nupur Lala. (Neil's father has hired a whole battalion of spelling coaches and tutors to run the boy through 7,000 words a day!)

Ashley White is the oldest daughter of a single mother in the D.C. projects. Ted Brigham is a loner from rural Missouri in a junior high that puts a much higher value on basketball than on spelling.

And then there's Harry Altman from New Jersey, the most hilariously idiosyncratic of the bunch -- bouncing off the walls with energy and jokes. "Is that microphone edible?" he inquires at one point. I'm just wild about Harry.

You can't imagine the pressure these kids are under, domestically and academically. But they choose and endure such competition of their own free will, because this is the thing at which they excel -- the field in which they'll make their mark. And the final contest is truly of Olympic proportions. Indeed, it's such a game of mental athletics that ESPN regularly televises the finals.

And none of that Regis Philbin "final answer?" stuff. You get one and only one chance -- and once a letter is uttered, there's no taking it back. If you spell the word wrong, you hear the dreaded "ding!" of a hotel front-desk bell, which signals your failure and elimination. The only signal of success is silence!

The film's greatest, most daunting adult character is "official word pronouncer" Alex Cameron -- a man guaranteed to produce nightmares ever after in the hearts of the young spellers whom he terrifies.

But that, and everything else in this superb documentary, is a metaphor for life. Director Jeff Blitz has assembled it with tremendous affection and suspense. Best of all, it answers the question asked by many in the computer age: Isn't spelling irrelevant in the era of electronic spellcheckers?

Hah! The memorization skills, root-word origin knowledge and international linguistic history these kids learn will serve them wonderfully for life, in and out of school -- whether or not you ever really need to use the word "cephalalgia" in conversation (let alone spell it).

This movie is letter perfect in every way.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections