I know I’ll sound like a big sap – but there are a few movies I consider to be ‘truly American’. Not in that they are patriotic – but that they illustrate deeply fundamental values on what it means to live in this country. The myths and ideals of education and mobility and second chances and hard work. Spellbound, a documentary about the Howard Scripps National Spelling Bee is one such film. It follows 8 kids from all over the United States as they vie to be the best speller in the nation. Few films can conjure up the suspense of a parent-packed, ESPN-broadcast room where all attention is on one girl as she attempts to spell ‘heliaplankton’. Forget Hitchcock. Forget 24. You ache with these kids. And when they mis-spell a word and their faces fall – so do you.
But aside from all that – each kid is a fundamentally American story. There’s the girl whose mother smuggled her and her brother from Mexico and her father tends to cattle for 25 years – all so his daughter can have a chance to have an education and opportunities that he will never have. There’s a family from India that is amazed at the American idea of a Second Chance – an idea not represented in their homeland. There’s a girl from the hood in D. C. who has wisdom beyond her years in dealing with setbacks and sees education as the way out of the ghetto.
Plus, the movie is funny as hell. If you grew up a brainiac – you will love this film.
The want of a parent for their children to have a better life is probably one of the most moving emotions that Hollywood hasn’t managed to wrest from my heart. Probably because characters in standard Hollywood fare aren’t of a class of people that are working solely for the benefit of their children (usually they don’t even have children). These are parents and kids in all their painful awkwardness and stupendous glory. Some of the kids are just so gawky but you know that once the braces come out or the shoulders broaden they’ll look like real live adults (and the DVD has a follow-up on the kids and yes – the one girl turns into a total babe). You think to yourself Jesus! The one mother is just such an DORK! But when her eyes explode out of her head as her daughter spells a word right you can’t help but cheer with her watching her child succeed (as her husband does laps around the hotel because he can’t bear to watch).
But a big part of it that does make me teary-eyed (and yes – I’m misty as I write this) is watching parents having to watch their kids fail. Mom and dad watched my sister and I do lots and lots of ventures, music contests, school newspapers, endless auditions for plays and symphonies, business ideas, new jobs, new relationships, college… and have had to know that they can’t do it for us and that maybe, just maybe, a setback is what is going to make us just that more resilient (and their anger at those that don’t realize just how special my son or daughter is!). That’s what Spellbound is about. TThe parents help them and coach them and motivate them and support them but know that when they fail they have to do it out there – all alone – by themselves. And then, as my dad would say, “Come home, eat some food, take a nap and then go back up to Chicago and face the dragons again.” They can’t buy their kids this success – this thing they want for them so badly. As one mom says that she’s trying to be optimistic, ‘not pestimistic’ you laugh a bit at her malaprop but then you see the heart and determination she has for her daughter to grow up with a better education than her – and hopefully better opportunities.
Anyway – I don’t often say you have to see film. But this one you do.