By Craig Joseph
There are so many things in this movie that make me laugh:
- the interactions between the owner of the ranch where Angela’s father works and his knitting wife,
- the simultaneous disdain and awe in the words and on the faces of the three boys whom Nupur defeats at her regional bee,
- Harry’s impersonation of a “musical robot,” and so much more.
Let’s face it. A film chronicling the efforts of eight children to win the Howard Scripps National Spelling Bee will be crammed with enough eccentricities and idiosyncracies to fill the Merriam Webster dictionary. And what the filmmakers do so skillfully is to turn the camera on and let these kids do their thing without judgment – and even with a measure of adulation. An opportunity to mock and laugh quickly morphs into an invitation to identify with and cheer on carefully selected segments of our nation’s population as they pursue a very specific slice of the American dream. In its ability to rally viewers alone, this movie is magical.
But this time around, my attention wasn’t on the kids; it was on the parents. And not the way you might expect.
I’m certainly guilty of clamoring to films about messed-up familes; with Tolstoy, I’ve tended to believe that “all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Quite simply, dysfunction is fun and therapeutic to watch, while the Waltons seems trite, fabricated and cookie-cutter.
However, this Spellbound viewing struck me as an exploration of the many different, unique and – yes – interesting forms that love can take. Segment after segment, I found myself intrigued and touched by the various ways that each parent had found to support and encourage their child in his or her pursuit of the championship. It’s as if – in their own weirdness – each parent has been able to intuit exactly what their child needs and provide it.
Ashley’s mother’s grammar is a mess and she mispronounces words left and right, but her fierce love is almost certainly what has helped catapult her daughter through obstacles in inner-city DC. At first blush, the regimen that Neil’s father has his son on seems crazy and almost abusive, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has set up an environment in which his driven son thrives – and even enjoys. And could there be more of a personality mismatch between pessimistic April and her pun-loving Edith Bunker mother? But Gayle lets April mope, never making too big of a deal about how proud she is of her daughter and quietly telling the camera she hopes April will someday stop thinking like that.
The examples are numerous, undercutting Tolstoy and I. And making me wonder if my (and maybe the culture’s) jaded assumptions – that love, harmony and peace are narratively lifeless and boring – are self-defeating where real life is concerned. If I believed that loving is creative, intentional, unique and filled with possibilities, maybe I would pursue it with more wholehearted abandon. Perhaps cleverness, irony, cynicism and ennui have become too sexy, luring me away from trying to live a life of loving others well – without fear or concern for my own wellbeing. After all, Spellbound IS real life – and is anything but tame and boring. Laughing at them is too easy; living like them, a worthwhile challenge. And I don’t have to be a parent to find out.