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So last Thursday at the Film Forum, I caught Spellbound, the new documentary that follows eight young contestants through the National Spelling Bee. It was gripping in its own way (although some of the tension was dispelled by the fact that I’d improbably seen this particular spelling bee on ESPN during my DC days, and thus knew who ended up winning), but also very, very hard to watch at times. Most of these kids (particularly the girls from Texas and Pennsylvania) had their hearts in the right place, but some of them were at such a socially awkward point in their development that everything they do on screen ends up being cringeworthy. Then, of course, there’s all the blatant stage parenting going on, which runs the gamut from supportive to smothering, if not downright disturbing (For example, one poor kid has 5000 starving Indians weighing on his conscience – if he doesn’t win, they don’t eat.) Perhaps my biggest problem with the documentary is that, though it’s emphatically a crowdpleaser, it also clearly encourages us more often than not to laugh at these people rather than empathize with them. There was just something a bit off-putting about watching a theater of would-be New York sophisticates guffaw at the often clueless-seeming small-town parents and teachers that populate the film. Other than the first contestant’s father, who illegally immigrated to Texas from Mexico to find a better way of life, most of the adults are used solely as comic relief. It might have been more interesting in the end to pare down the number of contestants followed to five or six and then give us a more multi-faceted look at their daily lives. But, like I said, Spellbound is still strangely compelling at times (C-O-M-P…), and might be worth a look if you catch it on IFC one day.

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