‘Spelling the Dream’
Starring: a gaggle of enthusiastic young spellers
Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
“Spellbound” was one of the hits of 2002’s film season: an engaging documentary that profiled some of the young competitors vying for the championship in the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.
Thanks to that film and other hits — such as 2005’s “March of the Penguins” and “Mad Hot Ballroom” — we’ve since enjoyed a welcome Renaissance in cinematic documentaries, which shows no sign of letting up.
Case in point: “Spelling the Dream,” a new Netflix original that mimics the successful “Spellbound” playbook, while analyzing the rather striking trend that has dominated the Scripps (no longer Howard) National Spelling Bee, during the past two decades.
Before getting to that, director Sam Rega opens his film with the staggering result of last year’s 92nd annual contest, when — after 20 exhilarating rounds — the judges acknowledged an eight-way tie for first place after they ran out of words. Those eight kids beat the dictionary.
Simply amazing. Even before last year, this annual contest had become must-see viewing on ESPN.
The provocative detail is that an Indian-American competitor has won for the past 12 consecutive years: one of the longest streaks in sports history. The obvious question: Why? Rega and co-scripter Chris Weller decided to find out, by profiling a quartet of young Indian-American competitors, as they navigate local and regional elimination matches en route to the 2017 finale in Washington, D.C.
The answer, as we quickly discover, isn’t that complicated. These kids work for it. They’re no different than any young athlete who shoots hoops or dribbles a soccer ball for three hours every afternoon; the passion is simply cerebral, rather than physical.
Our candidates also are encouraged by loving parents and — as often seems the case — cheerfully competitive siblings who are equally talented. Rega and Weller quickly emphasize that these aren’t “tiger parents,” drilling kids at the expense of their own childhood; pursuing this dream is a truly collaborative family endeavor.
But yes, these spelling savants do have one advantage: They’re multi-lingual, having grown up in households where English sometimes is an afterthought. That helps significantly when it comes to studying and understanding word roots.
And, yes, those same households are headed by Indian immigrants who took advantage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson welcomed the “best and brightest” into the United States. The new arrivals started families and raised their children with a similar work ethic, along with an infatuation with learning.
Such analysis comes courtesy of talking heads such as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and Dr. Sanjoy Gupta, ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi, sports doctor Balu Natarajan (who won the 1985 competition) and comedian Hari Kondabolu. The latter also takes a shot at racist social media trolls who lament the absence of recent “American” winners. (“They are Americans!” Kondabolu ripostes, in his best Take that tone.)
Such backstory, however thoughtful, isn’t nearly as important as the basic fact that children idolize heroes, and want to do what they do. Nothing was more inspirational than the fact that the 1999 winner, caught during her moment of glory in “Spellbound,” was Nupur Lala — who, yes, also gets some air time in this new film.
Right then, impressionable Indian-American children — and their parents — knew that this could become their thing.
And my, that’s an understatement.
Our irrepressible contestants include the utterly adorable Akash, at 7 years old, the youngest and most vibrantly precocious, who delights in stunts such as spelling a 45-letter word — a lung disease — using one hand to sweep aside the letters that appear on the screen as he recites them. (That’s a neat little special effect since he couldn’t have seen the letters in the moment.)
He’s a bubbly, unrestrained show-off who shamelessly mugs for the camera, and we love him for it. And he’s so small, during footage of his first Scripps appearance at age 6, that he has to stand on tippy-toe and bend the microphone down.
Shourav, a veteran at 14, is quiet and confident; his friends regard him as “the Michael Jordan of spelling.” Shourav’s parents also helped him set up the ultimate study tool: an impressive computer database of the roughly 150,000 words that “matter” from the dictionary of record. (Many words can be skipped, Shourav’s father explains; if you know “sleep,” you don’t need to worry about “sleeping.”)
Akash and Shourav hail from the Texas communities of (respectively) San Angelo and Spring. Ashrita, at 10, lives in North Andover, Mass. She exhibited spelling talent from a very young age and delights her friends by spelling Mary Poppins’ daffy magic word.
There’s a cute exchange with her parents, who confess that they assumed — not knowing any better at the time — that all children are proficient spellers, so they “just kept feeding her words.”
Tejas — also 14, and living in Glen Allen, Va. — is the intense one of this quartet. He’s calm and methodical, but seems tightly wound; he’s also a mite superstitious, and never competes without his “lucky purple stone” in one pocket.
This is the final shot for Shourav and Tejas, who are about to “age out”; contestants must not have passed beyond the eighth grade on or before Feb. 1 of the given year. (And how sad for this year’s 14-year-olds, denied their last chance because the 93rd national finals were canceled due to coronavirus concerns.)
All the competition footage is presented cleverly, with each contestant’s word highlighted at the bottom of the screen in Scrabble-like tiles, which are illuminated with each correct spoken letter (and woe when one of those letters turns red). You’ll recognize a slightly younger Erin Howard when we reach the 2017 finale; she’s one of the eight who triumphed last year.
It’s fascinating to watch, as some children first “write” the word invisibly on their palms, and we wince each time the little desk bell chimes an incorrect spelling.
As for the words themselves — good grief. Once we get beyond the initial rounds, I couldn’t even pronounce them, let alone spell them. This is the sort of stuff that escaped from “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words” (a thoroughly delightful book, just in passing).
At the end of the day, though, these are still children. Little hearts get crushed during the course of this film and it’s painful to witness.
But that doesn’t interfere with the edge-of-the-seat suspense that Rega generates as we slide into the final rounds. “Spelling the Dream” is a wonderful affirmation of work ethic, cultural pride and youthful enthusiasm: absolutely must-see family viewing.
And I’ve no doubt some of today’s young viewers will be similarly inspired.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.hkxms.cn.ShareTweet