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Harry casts a spell

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2003-10-10

Spellbound star Harry Altman

Spellbound star Harry Altman

Spellbound (U)

In the US the American National Spelling Bee is something of an institution. First introduced in 1925, it has now become so popular that it is shown annually on the sports cable channel ESPN (attracting a huge audience), and is as closely fought as any Pop Idol heat or Fame Academy final.

Admittedly, a documentary film about a spelling contest doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for a great night out at the movies, but Spellbound is just that. Nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars (eventually losing out to Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine), first-time filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz has created a superb, memorable film that turns the mundane business of spelling into something as thrilling as anything you’ll have seen in this summer’s  blockbusters.

The film follows the fortunes of eight children from all different backgrounds and cultures as they prepare for the final. Each has a fascinating story to tell – from Ted, the blue-collar teenager with the genius IQ, and April, who spends nine hours a day reading the dictionary, to Angela, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who is a remarkable speller even though her parents speak no English.

Possibly the most eccentric of the eight, however, is Harry, a pint-sized Jewish kid from New Jersey, who is hyperactive, given to telling really bad jokes and of course, brilliant at spelling. Harry finds himself in trouble when, during the final, he is asked to spell the word ‘banns’ – which means the religious announcement of a marriage within the Catholic Church. Can he overcome the fact he’s never heard of it and go on to take the Spelling Bee title?

Perhaps he might have been better off had he entered the 1983 Spelling Bee, in which the winning word was ‘Purim’ – but then again he’s not the only one with problems. Neil, the son of East Indian immigrants, looks blank when asked to spell ‘Darjeeling’ (which he has apparently never heard of), and Harry’s mother points out that she ‘felt bad for the kid from Texas who had to spell ‘Yenta’”…

The first half of the film is devoted to finding out about the eight kids and how they made it to the National Finals, while the second half follows their fortunes in the Bee itself – something which provides more than its fair share of edge-of-the-seat moments as the kids are given longer and even more obscure words. By this point you feel as though you know them so well that it’s almost heart-breaking when some of them begin to make mistakes and are eliminated from the contest – although some of those featured do make it to the final ten.

As the film is in limited release, you may have to seek it out – but trust us, it’s worth the effort. By taking this rather mundane subject and turning it into something so fascinating Blitz has created one of the best films of the year – guaranteed to blow away all those bad memories of school spelling tests.

Spellbound is released on October 10 at selected cinemas in London and across the UK.