Spelling their way to the top

Film tells suspenseful, rewarding tale

Spellbound' is not the classic thriller by Alfred Hitchcock.

Still, it's easy to imagine the Master of Suspense recognizing the potential for tension in an event such as the National Spelling Bee. Of course, he would likely have provided his own Hitchcockian embellishment, something like the spelling of a word concealing a secret code or formula. Can you spell 'MacGuffin'?

Be that as it may, this absolutely wonderful film from director Jeffrey Blitz packs an emotional wallop that most filmmakers would kill for. And let's not hear any of that stuff about it just being a, you know, d-o-c-u-m-e-n-t-a-r-y. This is an experience as worthy as any you'll get in a movie house, especially amid the cacophonous onslaught and meretricious rapacity (Look, Ma, no spell check!) of the summer movie season.

For his chronicle of the 1999 National Spelling Bee in our nation's capital, Blitz profiles eight of the 249 finalists. Clearly chosen with an eye for diversity, the kids and their families prove to be a captivating lot. Angela, for example, is a young Texan whose father, a Mexican immigrant ranch hand, can't speak English. Neil, on the other hand, is a Californian with an affluent Indian immigrant dad who has assembled a daunting program of preparation for the boy Ñ and has paid 1,000 people back in India to pray for his son's victory.

And then there's Ashley, from the projects in Washington, D.C., who has touching composure and dignity. In perfect contrast is Harry, from suburban New Jersey, a bundle of tics who is almost literally itching to win (his attempt at a particular word becomes a bizarre stream-of-consciousness workout with enough facial contortions to exhaust Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey both).

The first half of 'Spellbound' is spent getting to know these people, and almost instantly liking them. Even more, you get a condensed but inclusive tour of the United States, with a cumulative effect that may surprise you. Nearly every one of the film's 97 minutes gives you something worthwhile, and when the climax comes you will truly hang on every word.

While we come to share the pride that radiates from the parents, we can also understand one mother's likening the whole thing to a form of child abuse. Though we meet no hideous, grasping stage parents, you only have to look at the children on stage to know how terrible it feels when the bell sounds to signal a misspelling and another youngster is ushered off to the 'comfort room.' And it isn't hard to understand the frustration of being faced with words so arcane and perplexing that they sound more like George W. Bush mispronunciations than real words.

But 'Spellbound' makes it clear that there really are no losers at the National Spelling Bee. It's just one more aspect of the general miraculousness here. The bee never even feels like a competition in the traditional Ñ and, as we increasingly tend to define it, cutthroat Ñ sense. The participation is the reward. And the reward is tremendous, nothing less than a restoration of faith in America far more genuine than any profusion of flag-waving can provide.

Long before the final letter of the final word is spoken, it's obvious who the winner is. It's you.