« Loathesome protagonists | Main | Fiends, slash, shrimp, Constitution »

Spellbound (the spelling bee movie)


Various people told me I would love this movie, but I think I just don't like documentaries much. I spend too much time wondering what got left out, what got presented in a particular way because of the message the director or editor wanted to convey, etc. There was some fun stuff in this one, but overall it didn't do much for me.

There will be some minor theme and (sort of) plot spoilers here, though nothing really big.

It seemed to me that the message of this movie was: America is a land of opportunity, where people of all races and classes and backgrounds compete on a level playing field to be the best they can be, and where the only thing that matters is pure ability. I'm not just basing that on the two sets of South Asian parents who made a big deal about how great America was; it felt to me like most of the movie was focused on this idea. All the American flags got on my nerves.

The other message seemed to me to be that parents sometimes push their kids hard, but they don't care if the kids don't actually win, because winning isn't the important thing, it's how you play the game.

Both of those messages are enduring American stories that we like to tell ourselves, but it seems to me that they're also kind of cliches by now.

I would've expected to like the amount of attention paid to words in this movie, but the focus didn't seem to me to be on the words; as in a lot of sports movies, the focus was on the people and the competition and the story rather than on the technical details of the sport. Which probably makes for a better movie, but it also meant the movie didn't appeal much to the logophile in me. (Perhaps also because I'm more interested in wordplay-as-fun than in spelling-as-competition per se.)

I was wryly amused that two of the words that two of the focused-on kids went out on were words I would've misspelled the same ways they did. I was even more amused to learn later that in one of those cases, the spelling the kid gave ("distractable," which is how I would've spelled it too) is considered a correct alternative spelling by MW10. The other word in question ("heleoplankton") barely exists on the web; Google finds only 18 pages that use the term in a context other than discussion of the movie.

I had a few moments of chagrin that nobody in my elementary and middle schools ever mentioned the National Spelling Bee to me. I won the only spelling bee I was ever in (a one-school event in 6th grade) (the only time in my life I've ever actually been carried on several friends' shoulders)—although to be fair, the word my last remaining opponent (a friend of mine) went out on was one I'd have misspelled the same way he did. "Occurence," he spelled it, and I thought he'd gotten it right, and the teacher did too, and then another teacher said, "Wait, he left out the second R," so of course then I knew how to spell it. And although I was better with -ible and -able words when I was a kid (I somehow lost some of my natural spelling ability around the end of college), the Nationals include words that I've still never heard of, and that I wouldn't have been able to spell any better back then. So it's probably just as well.

I was struck by a couple of the kids saying that it's all luck of the draw. There were some pretty easy words in the Nationals, but also some astonishingly hard ones, and it did look like a lot depended on whether the kid happened to have learned the particular word in question. Though I must say I was impressed at the strategy most of the really good spellers seemed to use of checking on roots and language of origin; a nice demonstration that you can make a good educated guess about the spelling of a word even if you've never heard it before, if you're good with roots.

I thought it was interesting that three of the kids the movie follows are now online. Emily and April have both posted to the IMDB discussions of the movie. (Emily is at Carleton now, which makes me suspect I know people who know people who know her.) And Angela has her own web page (she's the one from Texas, whose parents are Mexican immigrants who don't speak much English).


I suspect I'll really like this movie, but I have yet to see it. I made it to Regionals in 5th grade, where I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack (somewhere shy of the top ten). I went to a larger middle school, and while I finished in the top ten at my school each succeeding year, I never went back to Regionals.

The Spelling Bee was my first taste of academic competition -- especially of interscholastic academic competition -- of any sort, and it left me eager for more.

I still remember that I won my elementary school Bee in 5th grade with "dank", and that I went out in Regionals by misspelling "monadnock".

America is the land of opportunity and they all compete on a level playing field? I didn't get that from Spellbound at all. In fact, the kids were pretty much eliminated in the order of their parents' disposable income and the amount of time and energy their folks could poor into training. Those chance elements of simple or difficult words had a small impact (the kid with the tutor and the meditation getting nailed before the eventual winner, who was nearly as well off) on either end of the curve.

Meanwhile, the kids whose folks didn't speak English, who just sort of wandered into success, or who had nothing to practice from but an old dictionary thanks to their shitty school, they were slaughtered like pigs in the early rounds.

I won the seventh grade spelling bee by specifically capitalizing the F in February, which seems a little cheesy, but it did assuage my bitterness at getting knocked out on my first word in sixth grade by spelling the wrong principal/principle.

>it did assuage my bitterness at getting knocked out on my first word in sixth grade by spelling the wrong principal/principle.

But you haven't spelled the sixth grade word incorrectly since, eh?

I'm still bitter that I didn't get to participate in the national spelling bee, since I went to a Catholic school. There's a separate Catholic spelling bee, and I actually made it to third place national on that (and I still assert that there's no reason not to double both the 'c' and the 'l' in broccoli), but the entire business feels like a sham, since I have no idea whether I would have even made it past city in the real spelling bee.

I'm also slightly bitter about the entire summer that I spent drilling spelling words with my mother, sitting at the kitchen window, staring longingly at the back yard and all that lovely grass I wanted to be running around in. I enjoyed competition and the local/state wins, but I would not have chosen to study nearly that hard if it'd been up to me.

But isn't the Principal your Pal?

I have never been any good at spelling words aloud. Not only do I need to see the word written out to have some chance at recognizing that I've gotten it wrong, but I haven't the mental discipline even to keep concentration all the way through a long word. In whatever grade it was, I got tossed out spelling 'independence' as 'indepence' and couldn't believe that I had gone from one 'en' to the other without noticing.

Now, 'eleemosynary' I could spell perfeckly.


I'm British, and we don't do spelling bees. I've always found the spelling bee an astonishing concept since I would have thought you don't learn or use words as sequences of letters but as whole words, or at least whole phonemes. If someone asks me to spell a word, usually the only way I can do it is with a pen and paper since that's the bit of my brain spellings are stored in.

Of course, when I first learned to type I had terrible trouble spelling anything, for that very reason. Funnily enough, since I became a pretty fair typist, I can also spell words out by "imaginary typing" them - but I still can't do it as sequences of letters spoken aloud.

Post a comment