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Home > Film

Robin Ince's Top 30,000 Films Of All Time

#29,967: Spellbound

16 October 2003

At the start of the week I decided I was going to muse on the magnificence of Julianne Moore. The fact that she didn't win an Oscar this year, despite being nominated in both best actress and best supporting actress categories, shows that the Academy Awards are the most appalling waste of everyone’s time.

I don't know what exactly Julianne Moore has, but in films like End of the Affair and Magnolia, she somehow plunges her hand delicately down our throats and then crushes every quadrant of our hearts until tears spew from our eyes almost inappropriately. She is also adept at comedy, as shown in the Big Liebowski and the heftily underrated Cookie’s Fortune (not Nine Months, though that isn't her fault, I blame the Robin Williams cameo for infecting the rest of the movie). She will one day win an Oscar, despite her refusal to be showy. How much better to dance around like a spastic or gay and punch our retinas until we see that you are acting, really acting, all researched at some home or hostel or other, rather than just emoting with aching subtlety.


But instead I saw another Oscar nominee that failed to win and was won over but undoubtedly the greatest spelling competition documentary of all time. Spellbound was beaten at the awards by Bowling for Columbine, a worthy winner, despite going on just a bit too long. Fortunately the rather unattractive Charlton Heston interview at the film’s conclusion was entirely made up for by Michael Moore’s powerful, if unheeded, acceptance speech. All those nincompoops in Washington who spray spittle berating the awful pink liberalism of Hollywood, take note of just how few Hollywoodians bothered to support Moore’s speech; a demonstration of magnificent career cowardice and ignorance. Nearly everyone of the Academy members looked behind them to see what Jerry Bruckenheimer or Harvey Weinstein were doing before they risked a genuine reaction.

Since Michael Moore brought all his fellow documentary makers up to the podium to receive the best Documentary award, there have been those who have gone on to decry his speech, stating they would not have joined him had they known he would denounce an illegitimate president and an unjust, murderous war of western economy (each to their own). Fortunately I don't think Jeffrey Blitz and Sean Welch were amongst those who regret this union with Moore, because they have created an utterly charming, moving celebration of geeks and their parents. I must make it clear that I do not use geeks in a derogatory manner, it is time that geeks, like those who both write and read this dispatch, embrace their awkward almost autism, and Spellbound is a good point to begin at. This is the story of eight children (most teens or almost) who have made it to the final of the US national Spelling Bee. The spelling bee is where children are tested on their ability to vocally spell words, starting in the classroom , leading to state finals and ending up in Washington infront of a television audience.


The eight children (out of over 200) come from differing backgrounds, and represent different sections of the American Dream, but none are filed under the section that is solely for derision. There is the Mexican girl whose father cannot speak English but sneaked into the US and underwent much pain in the hope of improving his children’s chances of a life; the girl from some Washington Hellhole whose relatives languish in jail; the second generation Indian boy whose father has made a fortune and invests it in making his son the country’s greatest speller and so on and so on.

The makers avoid making this a battle of different classes and they don't make the children freaks, they are just kids who are a bit different and worthy of celebration. The hyperactive, tooth braced boy is a joy to behold, though you wouldn’t want to babvsit him, as is the girl from New Jersey with the eccentric but kind mother who has her ankles licked by a dog whilst eschewing the greatness of her shy, awkward daughter.

There are some who criticise this film as taking advantage of its subjects and making them into a Christopher Guest movie, but watch this without pointless contempt and you will see no malice. Just because they are a group much derided doesn’t mean we should swing round to the opposite end and remove all laughter from their lives.

There are moments where you will have a vicious desire for the children to succeed and who nowadays, or anyday, expects to be moved by a movie about kids in a spelling competition? Go along and start a sweepstake, you may be surprised by the winner PLUS you will discover just how lacklustre your own
spelling is.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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