For several years, I watched the National spelling bee competitions on ESPN, and they were so nerve-wracking that I had to take breaks every 40 minutes or so. It was a combination of watching these kids suffer, the pressure their parents must place on them, the fact that they no doubt get teased mercilessly in school, the fact that they contort their faces in the most fascinatingly grotesque ways, and the pain and torture that they are going through while on stage, and even while they watch the other kids is always evident.
The documentary Spellbound covers the lives of eight of the kids for the first 50 minutes and leaves the actual event for the last half (fitting in perfectly with my needs). The movie is completely straightforward, each child gets a shortish segment establishing their backgrounds and studying habits, and only the construction of the conclusion was an interesting decision (the final word, which is a heavily ironic word considering the event it takes place at, is not revealed if the child spelled it right until the final shot, while the reactions are played beforehand without giving it away).
I am not sure if I feel the kids in Spellbound were exploited or it was a celebration of their achievements. I don’t mean from the parental perspective (which the movie makes quite clear), as there were certain kids whom you sense will get a heavy beating for losing, especially the one who’s grandfather in India will provide food for 5,000, but only if he wins. By only glazing over details like this, the filmmakers missed out on a useful opportunity, to equate the pressure parents put on their athletic versus the nerdier version here. Few of the children ever seem all that happy to be there, more that they feel obligated, and relieved when they lose. The fact that these kids are no doubt vilified socially is faintly hinted at, which is probably a larger reality in their lives, more important than a spelling bee that only the winner retains any notoriety. To me, it seems to be exploitative to only paint one side of this picture. Spellbound misses an opportunity to be truly profound, and settled for the obvious.