• Review Date: January 20, 2004
  • Rated: G
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Release Year: 2003
  • Running Time: 96 minutes

Common Sense Media says

Families should see this m-a-r-v-e-l-o-u-s film.
  • Review Date: January 20, 2004
  • Rated: G
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Release Year: 2003
  • Running Time: 96 minutes





What parents need to know

Positive messages

For the extremely bright kids who give up most recreational activities to dedicate themselves to the study necessary to make it to the National Spelling Bee, there is validation in converging with other kids just like them at the yearly event in Washington, D.C. Some feel socially isolated among their peers by their high academic aptitude, and getting to the national competition seems to offer validation that not only was the hard work worth it, but that it's okay to be different. The filmmakers appear to have selected for a socio-economic and geographic range of spellers. The eight kids the film focuses on all seem to be well supported by parents and family, who reassure the spellers that winning is not as important as preparing well for the competition and doing their best.


Positive role models

Without exception, the parents of the spellers who lost at the national bee are supportive and proud of each child's accomplishment. Surprisingly, so are most of the kids themselves after their losses. Their fates hang on handling such words as "clavecin," "terrene," "cabotinage," and "kirtle," and after their efforts almost all the losers walk off stage with their heads held high, a tribute to the self-esteem that may flow from doing the hard work that got them to the championship. One speller's father smuggled his famly across the Mexican border to give them better lives in America. His children are bright and well-spoken and grateful for being in this country. He himself does not speak English. The only black contestant featured here is from difficult economic circumstances. She says of herself, "My life is like a movie. I go through different trials and tribulations and then I overcome."


The parent of a black competitor suggests that her daughter is not being hailed for her accomplishment the way she would be if she were white. One parent tells another that the spelling bee is "a different form of child abuse." Perhaps exemplifyig this view is an interview with a parent who describes reviewing 7,000 words a day with his speller, and a  competitor who says that during the summer she studies spelling eight to nine hours per day, and five to six hours per day during school months. One couple describes their obsessed daughter as refusing to go the mall with her friends because she needs to devote all free hours to studying spelling. They told her to "Lighten up." One speller's father, Ubaldo, is a Mexican immigrant who works as a cattle ranch hand for a clueless American couple. They obliviously badmouth Mexicans by noting that Ubaldo is unusually reliable, and they've thus concluded that not all Mexicans are "bums and tramps." They even wonder how Ubaldo's spelling champ daughter learned to speak English. The competition is tense and the spellers get nervous.

Not applicable
Not applicable
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Some adults are seen smoking.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this documentary has some tense and sad scenes. Children are upset when they lose (they are escorted onstage to a "comfort room"). One child uses a mildly bad word.

Parents say

Kids say

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 (one's father still speaks no English) and a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds. The contestants, over 240 of them, are all 8th 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 almost as big as she is and about to fall to pieces from use, and says 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 is about the strength of American diversity and the commitment of this country to opportunity. It is about ambition, dedication, and courage. It is about finding a dream that speaks to each individual. Most of all, it is 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. The movie is filled with brilliantly observed moments that illuminate the lives of the individuals but also the lives of all families and all dreamers. As we watch these kids, girls towering over boys, more with braces than without, puberty's uneven effects everywhere, many of the kids confessing that they feel all alone in their school, we see them hold on to this mastery of words eclipsing anything an adult can do as a lifeline, or maybe a flashlight, leading them to their adult selves.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about how the families in the movie, especially the immigrant families and those at the lower end of the economic spectrum, see the importance of the spelling bee.

Movie details

Theatrical release date:May 16, 2003
DVD release date:January 20, 2004
Cast:Angela Arenivar, Neelima Marupudi, Ted Brigham
Director:Jeffrey Blitz
Topics:Great boy role models, Great girl role models, Numbers and letters
Run time:96 minutes
MPAA rating:G

This review of Spellbound was written by

About our rating system

  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

Find out more


Our star rating assesses the media's overall quality.

Find out more

Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

Find out more

About our buy links

When you use our links to make a purchase, Common Sense Media earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes. As a nonprofit organization, these funds help us continue providing independent, ad-free services for educators, families, and kids while the price you pay remains the same. Thank you for your support.
Read more

See more about how we rate and review.

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Parent of a 9 year old Written byrobinpeggy April 9, 2008
Teen, 15 years old Written byShinjo April 9, 2008
AGENot rated for age

Fantastic Movie! It really shows you how hard work really pays off!

This is a great movie about a group of kids all in the national spelling-bee. They all study extremly hard and keep working at the words that the need to memorize. It is fun, intense, and really pulls you into a day in the life of each of these smart kids.
Kid, 11 years old August 19, 2011

Good message for all ages

It may be harder to understand for younger preschoolers, it is a great movie for all ages. Nupur is a great role model, telling kids not to give up. There is also a message to work hard and no matter how bad you did last time, you can always improve.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models


Did our review help you make an informed decision about this product?

Common Sense Kids Action