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Letter Perfect


I think she's mean for saying so, but my wife likes to call me a mush. This is because I've been known to choke up at the end of movies or episodes of NYPD Blue when Andy Sipowicz learns something or does something redemptive. What she doesn't know, because she isn't a fan, is that I also choke up at the end of championship sporting events. People feeling the triumph that results from long, hard preparation is profoundly moving to me: Tim Duncan and David Robinson with their arms around each other, holding trophies aloft; Sarah Hughes hugging her mother after skating to Olympic gold. That's why I'm a sucker for sports movies and movies like the exquisite Stand and Deliver that detail struggle, then victory. And that's why I'm the perfect audience for Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz's Oscar-nominated documentary.

Spellbound is the story of eight finalists in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, middle school kids willing to study flashcards and pore over dictionaries while their peers watch TV or play video games. The National Bee gathers 249 regional champions to compete in two long days of trying to remember how to spell words like opsimath and cabotinage, neither of which appears in the dictionary I keep beside my desk. The rules are simple: hear the word and spell it right without correcting yourself. Before you begin, you are allowed to ask for a definition and to hear the word used in a sentence. You can even ask about its linguistic roots, and the kids who advance deeply in the competition study other languages to enhance their chances of ferreting out correct spellings for words they haven't memorized.

I readily concede that there's an artificiality to this whole enterprise. These children learn to spell words they will never use or even hear again. Still, their dedication is awe-inspiring. One contestant studies eight hours a day in the summer and five to six hours a day during the school year. With such a study schedule, you'd expect the youngsters to be otherwise stunted. But to a large extent they aren't. They ride horses, play sports, practice musical instruments and hang out with their friends. Still, they are a breed apart, and an air of loneliness hangs about many of them. The eight we meet come from different geographical regions and different socioeconomic backgrounds. What they have in common is a competitive spirit and a willingness to work harder than most people ever do. That's a trait, of course, they share with champions of most anything.

The eight young stars of Spellbound could be the poster children for the Rainbow Coalition. They come in all sexes, sizes and colors. And as we come to know them in this film, we want to embrace every one. Mexican-American Angela Arenivar hails from dusty Perryton, Texas. She's a seemingly average teenager save for the fact that 20 years ago her parents came into this country illegally and that her dad, who labors on the cattle ranch where he first found work, still cannot speak a word of English. That doesn't stop him, however, from almost bursting with pride in his daughter's drive and accomplishment. Nupur Lala is from Tampa, Fla., a middle-class child of Indian immigrants. For such a sweet, polite girl, her competitive fire is surprising. That arresting competitive spark is also a feature in the personality of Emily Stagg, a white New Haven, Conn., young lady from an obviously affluent home.

Defensive tackle-size Ted Brigham from Rolla, Mo., is white and as taciturn as Ben Hogan, while Jewish, pixie-size, rubber-faced Glen Rock, N.J., native Harry Altman is as garrulous as Bill Clinton. Ted spells his words in a flurry, as if making a mistake is superior to standing long at the microphone. Harry agonizes over each letter, as if nothing could be worse than speaking aloud the vowel that might put him out.

San Clemente, Calif., native Neil Nadakia's Indian immigrant father hires tutors and urges his son on with a pep-talk campaign that seems over the top, while the Ambler, Penn., parents of shy April DeGideo worry that she pushes herself too hard and will be too disappointed if she doesn't win. Most amazing among the eight is optimistic young Ashley White, an African-American young lady from a Washington, D.C., housing project. Ashley's mother encourages her daughter and cheers for her, but she possesses neither the material resources nor the education to provide Ashley the assistance other competitors get from their parents.

It is the big-heartedness of this film that we root for all these kids equally. Only one can win, and the one who does isn't guaranteed to be one we know. Our young heroes go out at various stages of the contest, and our heart aches each time one departs. But each one goes home a winner, the better for having given his or her best. And yes, at the end, I'm a mush.

Stand and deliver: Contestants in the National - Spelling Bee try to spell victory in Jeffrey Blitz's - documentary Spellbound. -
  • Stand and deliver: Contestants in the National Spelling Bee try to spell victory in Jeffrey Blitz's documentary Spellbound.

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