Date: circa 1555
1: to influence and dominate by some special charm, art, or trait and with an irresistible appeal
This film captivated me.
The filmmakers of this Academy Award-nominated documentary present us with the stories of eight contestants participating in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. They are Harry, Angela, Ted, April, Neil, Nupur, Emily and Ashley. A few of the girls had corresponded with fans through the movie’s bulletin board at imdb. The aggregation we’re presented is a good sampling of the participants. They come from all parts of the nation, Southern California, the Midwest, and even Washington D.C. where the contest is held. Most are eighth-graders, the final year of eligibility, which affixes extra pressure since there can be no “better luck next year.” They are returning contestants yet to be the last speller standing and first-timers unaware of what they’ve signed up for. Kids who study words every moment they have as if the fate of the Universe hung in the balance and others who are lackadaisical.
We also meet the kids’ family members who range from actively helping their children by enlisting language tutors to one set of parents who don’t speak English even though they’ve been working and living on a Texas ranch for years. All are very happy their children have won local Bees and although some are striving for their child to win, none could be prouder of where their child finishes. No fisticuffs here from parents living vicariously through their children.
After the regional Bees and the prep work, everyone arrives in D.C. to a week of activities before the National Bee starts. Some are overly focused, passing up wonderful events because they cut into studying time. The contest starts with over 200 children and they are weeded out round by round over the course of a couple days with some breaks in between. Rather than eating, most kids use these short breaks as yet another study period. The event has become so big that ESPN and ABC now cover the final rounds.
Each child is given a word, the child pronounces the word and then goes on to spell it. The child is allowed to ask questions regarding the word such as “What’s its definition?” “Can you use it in a sentence?” and “Language of origin for the word?” Then the spelling begins.
After the word is spelled, there is a moment that becomes an eternity before we discover whether or not the word is spelled right. This moment creates tension and excitement in the contestant as well as the audience. If the word is correct, the child returns to their seat in silence, but if incorrect, a bell will chime, like one at a hotel reception desk, signaling a wrong answer. The speller is in limbo after that last letter, some are inaccurately confidant, others surprised by their voraciousness, but over the course of two days, all but one will hear: PING! That erstwhile pleasant sound rings out, then the word is correctly spelled. Some of the children are sent reeling, faces scrunched up, not even hearing the announcer as they walk off. One young lady summed it up perfectly when she was eliminated. “Crap!”