There’s a natural competitive thrill to this chronicle of the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee and eight of its bright young participants, but Spellbound has more than an edge-of-your-seat pull going for it. For one, there’s its holistic approach to profiling the competitors: director Jeffrey Blitz makes this as much a portrait of the village that raises these kids by interviewing their proud families and supportive communities. We get intimate snapshots of each of their disparate young lives, which together represent a cross-section of American society: from Angela — the self-taught daughter of Mexican ranchers who don’t speak English — to Neil, whose parents employ an army of tutors to prepare him for the oncoming “war.”
Spellbound ultimately sees the good in everyone — even the pushiest parents — and charitably foregrounds the obvious love and pride they all have for their kid geniuses, no matter what happens. What’s even more impressive, though, is the inspiring resilience and emotional intelligence of the young competitors themselves, some of whom have transcended deeply entrenched social inequalities to earn their place in the contest. Even those who don’t have a stirring backstory are nonetheless compelling characters (see: the delightful Harry), making Spellbound an alternately emotional, funny, and always gripping watch.