By Gennae Falconer
Where to begin? I’m paralyzed by the myriad thoughts rolling in my head, and horrified that in a dozen words, I’ve already misspelled too, two. I finished watching the documentary Spellbound and immediately tried to quell my anxious stomach with corn chips and chocolate chip cookies. Be ye warned, not even binge snacking can ease the tension created from seeing pubescent teens try to conquer the world of spelling bees. But my tummy rumbles in no way could compare to those experienced by the spelling bee participants and their parents. Whoa.
Of the eight children who were followed, I was captivated by a handful. The girl who won was not one of them, although she’s a really impressive violinist for her age. I was immediately taken with Angela and her immigrant parents, in particular her father who moved to the U.S. to give his children a better life. He works for an imbecilic ranch owner who refers to Latinos as “them” and is full of cringe-inducing stereotypes. Angela’s dad cannot speak English…here’s hoping he can’t understand it either. Angela is a sweet girl with a huge mouth she hasn’t quite grown into, and is exuberant. She made it easy to root for. In contrast there was a kid named Harry who was a complex mess of nerdy and socially awkward. He too had a mouth yearning to fit a larger head, but was less captivating than Angela as his mouth never stopped moving. He was talkative, confusing, and constantly making facial expressions that simultaneously annoyed and interested me. In all honesty, I did not want him to win, but I wanted to see and hear more of him.
Neil, whose parents Rajesh and Darshana are from India, was perhaps the most well trained contestant. His parents paid for a tutor to spend between 12-20 hours a week quizzing and coaching, and supplemented that training with French and Spanish tutors to help him understand the origin of words that could possibly be a part of the BEE. Neil’s mother used phrasing such as “when in crisis” and “fighting in a war” to convey the state the family was in as they prepared Neil to be the #1 American speller. The pressure on this kid was already high when the grandfather heaped the fate of 5,000 hungry Indians on his ability to win as well. Yikes! I was afraid his parents would be devastated by his loss, but in the end they were proud. Frankly, that was a relief to me.
After watching this documentary, I totally understand why Craig chose this movie. It’s a beautiful reflection of the complexities of families. While some families seemed to walk a fine line between supportive and neurotic, the love parents and siblings felt for the contestants was undeniable. There are many reasons to watch this documentary. But if hard-work, the illusive American Dream, budding acne, and spelling-angst aren’t enough for you, may the variety of spectacles showcased be reason enough. In the words of 4th place April’s mother, (with the largest spectacles of anyone), “Bee Happy.”