Friday, January 25, 2013
Director/photography: Jeffrey Blitz
Music: Daniel Hulsizer
Editor: Yana Gorskaya
Spellbound is so formally effective as a documentary of the annual National Spelling Bee competition, sponsored by the E.W. Scripps company, a media conglomerate, and held in the late spring of each year in Washington, D.C., that one wonders why it hasn't been done more often. It focuses on the competition in one year, 1999, and well before the competition has begun hand-picks eight competitors to follow, traveling to their home towns, interviewing their families, friends, and teachers, and sketching five-minute portraits of each.
These choices were clearly not made randomly—among them are three of the final eight competitors, including the eventual winner, along with children of Mexican and Indian immigrants and children from poor and disadvantaged and from upper-middle-class and privileged households. Regions represented include California, D.C., Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. It's a real potpourri, and if the mechanics behind it show, the final result speaks for itself: an absolutely riveting portrait of a competition capable of suspending time the way any closely contested athletic competition can.
The winning formula is right there, obvious if implied: Carefully choose eight competitors based primarily on their chances of winning, and secondarily on demographics and certain elements conducive to storytelling, and do some location work. In this short feature fully half the running time is devoted to introductions, which is likely another clue to why this works so well. It feels deliberate, even as it is nimble. I think, for example, of TV's Survivor, which is all formula though its many reality-TV constituent factors are flexible enough to accommodate frequent tweaking. Survivor nearly always "plays"—anyone watching the first six episodes of any season will tend to care how it ends. But already there is a clue to the difference there: Survivor goes on (and on) across multiple episodes for hours and hours over a period of months, whereas Spellbound is only 97 minutes.
Which brings us to Jeffrey Blitz, the director and photographer of the original video footage that we see here. Spellbound is his first feature, and in the time since he has made another documentary (Lucky, in 2010, about lottery winners), a narrative film (Rocket Science, 2007), and has directed episodes of TV's The Office and Parks and Recreation (none of which I have seen). It's hard to know what to make of this resume exactly. He does not appear to me to be amply rewarded for Spellbound, but perhaps he works slowly and methodically, or is picky about what he does.
Part of me wants to say it is Blitz's passion that makes Spellbound so good, and that's true insofar as it motivated him to do the legwork of going into some depth with the eight competitors he featured. Part of it is also the clarity with which he saw the inherent drama itself in a spelling bee competition. But I suspect the biggest part of it was luck. He could not have known ahead of time, for example, that Angela, the bubbly daughter of Mexican immigrants in Perryton, Texas, would be required to go a mind-boggling 54 rounds to win her regional competition to qualify for the National. And there are set pieces here that could never be scripted (as the saying goes), built around competitors desperately flailing at words they obviously have never heard of, notably "wheedle" (Angela), "corollary" (Nupur), and "darjeeling" (Neil). They are amazing, indelible moments.
Blitz's instincts are not always on the mark. He clearly thinks he has found documentary gold in Harry, going so far as to open the whole picture on him in an out-of-sequence moment that is more alarming than anything else. To me, the high-strung kid from New Jersey is grating. But Spellbound otherwise quickly gets down to its business and wastes little time. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of it may be its structure, which patiently lays the groundwork of acquainting us with its characters, and then puts them through their paces with a steady but natural ratcheting of tension that is almost imperceptible. Its second half goes by in a tremendously satisfying blink, which stands up well to repeated viewing.
Phil has written previously about Spellbound, making an evocative comparison to 21 Up (a hint to Jeffrey Blitz I am almost tempted to forward along because it's such a great idea and now is the time). He might be a little more inclined than me generally to read political themes into it, although that's certainly an overtly calculated element of Neil's father, an Indian immigrant who spouts familiar platitudes about the impossibility of failure in America if one is willing to work hard. (In fairness, standing in his Orange County mansion which he built himself, he's not a little persuasive on the point.)
In fact, Neil's father to me is a good example of exactly what makes this film work. At first, he appears to be a nightmare of the pushiest kind of pressuring parent, drilling and drilling and drilling Neil on words (occasionally mispronounced, as "epitome," which Neil's father rhymes with gnome) (and Neil spells correctly). Neil's father concocts an elaborate strategy of studying patterns of spelling by word origin, and lectures Neil and the camera on the single-minded goal of success by winning. But in the end this man is not that cliché at all, coming off instead as a kind, compassionate, and infinitely supportive father during and after the competition.
Granted, he could have been simply playing for the camera. But there's very little that's simple or programmatic in Spellbound, and it's fascinating how Blitz takes on what appears at first to be an insignificant and narrow slice of nerddom, and burrows deep inside it, creating a vast world of complex and fascinating characters and motivations. I still have to wonder why it isn't done more often. Probably the gatekeepers insist that it's already been done, with this very movie, but couldn't you do reality-TV seasons with it? Wait, maybe that's a bad idea.