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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Spellbound is a documentary that follows eight kids from different socioeconomic and geographic areas as they prepare for the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. It has some tense and sad scenes; kids are upset when they lose (they're escorted onstage to a "comfort room"). One child uses a mild potty word. The film has great messages about working hard, self-acceptance, and always doing your best. The spellers are smart, funny, ambitious, brave, and dedicated; their parents are supportive and proud of their kids.
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What's the story?
SPELLBOUND is the true story of the 1999 National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., and especially of eight regional winners in the competition. The eight featured competitors include three children of immigrants and represent a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds. The contestants, over 240 of them, all are in the eighth grade and younger. With their slightly old-fashioned area of expertise, these kids have an engaging sense of adventure, affection, and wonder about words and language. One shows off her huge dictionary that's almost as big as she is and about to fall to pieces from use, saying she does not think she will ever part with it. Three boys talk about how they lost to a tough contender named Nupur. Ashley tells us she is a "prayer warrior" who feels like her life is a movie. And we get to see every kind of family. All the parents assure their children that they are winners no matter what happens at the national bee, but some do so more convincingly than others. Each family has its own idea of what it means to achieve success and what they think success could mean for their future. One father hires special spelling tutors and runs constant drills. Others look on, all but speechless, at children whose talents seem as exotic to them as though they had sprouted feathers.
Is it any good?
Every family should see this m-a-r-v-e-l-o-u-s documentary, because it is about so much more than the spelling bee. It's about the strength of American diversity and the commitment of this country to opportunity. It's about ambition, dedication, and courage. It's about finding a dream that speaks to each individual. Most of all, it's about family; the opportunity to discuss the wide variation in styles of family communication and values is in itself a reason for every family with children to watch this movie together.
Plus, it is one of the most genuinely thrilling, touching, and purely enjoyable movies of the year. Spellbound is filled with brilliantly observed moments that illuminate the lives of the individuals but also the lives of all families and dreamers. As we watch these kids, girls towering over boys, more kids with braces than without, puberty's uneven effects everywhere, many of the kids confessing that they feel all alone in their schools, we see them hold on to this mastery of words eclipsing the mastery of most adults -- and leading them to their adult selves.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the families in Spellbound, especially the immigrant families and those at the lower end of the economic spectrum, see the importance of the spelling bee. Why is making it to the National Spelling Bee even more of an achievement for them?
Which of the eight spellers is your favorite, and why? What about him or her stood out to you?
What are the sacrifices that the kids and their families have to make to be successful?
- In theaters: May 16, 2003
- On DVD or streaming: January 20, 2004
- Cast: Angela Arenivar, Neelima Marupudi, Ted Brigham
- Director: Jeffrey Blitz
- Studio: THINKFilm
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Great Boy Role Models, Great Girl Role Models, Numbers and Letters
- Character strengths: Courage, Perseverance, Self-control
- Run time: 96 minutes
- MPAA rating: G
- Last updated: July 24, 2020
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