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The Trouble with Harry Altman

dir. Jeffrey Blitz, U.S.
ThinkFilm/HBO/Cinemax Documentary

(from “spellbind”: to bind or hold as if by a spell)

Spellbound, the new spelling bee documentary, shares its title with Hitchcock’s campiest psychoanalytic manhunt, but it reminds me instead of his earlier Sabotage, in which an unknowing boy is implicated in a suicide bombing. Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound also finds its young subjects in a cruel situation of sorts, and suspense is the right word for watching these kids teeter on the brink of sudden elimination, a full year’s worth of prodigious dictionary reading gone to naught. The analytical dimensions of Spellbound, like those of Hitchcock, are subaltern, and the intellectual development of its themes is secondary to its expert production of suspense effects. Spellbound is not rigorously rhetorical, but rather deeply invested in the emotional intensity of its spelling bee and the immediate anxiety felt by its contestants.

What we expect from the beginning, though, is the opposite—an argument about social stratification or an indictment of the American culture of competitiveness. We meet eight kids who have advanced to the national spelling bee (the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, that is—not even spelling bees are immune to corporate sponsorship). As the filmmakers summon them from across the socioeconomic spectrum, we envision Michael Apted’s Up documentaries with an all-nerd teenage cast. Instead we get slices of Americana that are not so class-critical. Among the eight featured principles are three children of immigrants: the Texan Angela, whose older brother speaks on behalf of her camera shy, non-English-speaking Mexican father; the Californian Neil, whose Indian father has purchased computer software to enhance his 4,000 word-a-day training regimen; and the Floridian Nupur, whose Indian parents beam knowingly upon their daughter’s goody-two-shoesedness. Together, they talk about the spelling bee—and more importantly, their hours of daily preparation—as symbolic of the American Dream. But really these are just intimate bios that prep us for the film’s bravura staging of the competition itself. What’s missing from these sketches is any analysis of how the kids’ different backgrounds affect their chances in the bee or in life, or even a moral attitude about inequality.

If the film cannot make this point, perhaps it’s because it knows too well of the frivolity and meaninglessness of spelling bees. The kids aren’t passionate about spelling, either. Ted from Missouri tells us that what he’s really good at is math, and for Nupur the point is made that this spelling bee business is just another extracurricular addition to a well-rounded college application. Spelling becomes a ruse, or (if I may extend the Hitchcock metaphor one last time) a MacGuffin for competition of an extremely pure order. The moderator’s announcement in the final round that words will hence be drawn from the “championship subset” of the competition’s dictionary (this movie will probably offer the first and last product placement bonanza for Merriam-Webster) is laughable because these kids haven’t faced a word easier than “wheedle” since the prelims. Here was an opportunity for Spellbound to cast a broader cultural argument—to which it gestures, noting that Americans superlatively urge their kids to compete—but like its crack at class commentary, the effort is only suggestive.

In the hands of other filmmakers, obsessive dads like Neil’s would have provided easy targets. But director Blitz and editor Yana Gorskaya sidestep the touchy subject of parental pressure by making the parents the brunt of the jokes. Trimming inches from the scenes with Neil’s dad would make him a child abuser, but allowing the camera to linger on him for half a moment after he details the methods used in Neil’s training catches a toothy smile that allows us to see him as a boob. Most of the parents, regardless of the extent to which they take interest in the bee, aren’t nearly as sharp as their hyper-achieving offspring, and Spellbound invites us to laugh at them as yokels. The good thing about these scenes, however, is that they perform the commendable function of deflecting our laughter away from the kids. Unlike Cinemania or its kinsman Trekkies, Spellbound isn’t interested in its young subjects as carnival hilarities but as sentient and spunky prodigies who have a sense of perspective about their unconventional competitiveness. Nonetheless, the filmmakers could not have possibly resisted the temptation of Harry Altman, the precious 10-year-old spasmatoid whom I would love to see in Spellbound 2.

Kids are not easily dramatized without resorting to the sentimentality adults project onto childhood, but the kids in Spellbound are willful, emotionally expressive with a subtlety thought to be the domain of adults. The film’s flaws—the cartoon parents, the underdevelopment of its analytical frameworks—actually help carve out this interiority for its young protagonists.

The pleasure that we take in the final spelling bee is a little bit circumspect, then. In a way, we become complicit in the process of pressuring these kids, but the competition has been cut so deftly that soon we don’t care. Long static close-ups fixate on them as they cough up eleven letter words; we can only watch as their faces contort. An incorrect spelling gets a desk bell, yet there is no signal for a correct spelling, so that the tension following each successful attempt is only lifted by silence. And then there are the flash-forward interviews, in other films about competition a sure sign that someone is a goner, only here it’s not so clear-cut. What we get is Russian Roulette, and despite some tears and disappointments, most of the kids consider their elimination a mercy killing. Like the filmmakers, they have not really attached any greater importance to the spelling bee; like us, they have just enjoyed the ride. Perhaps it was better this way.

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