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Eight young whiz kids head to the 1999 National Spelling Bee, a cross-section of young Americans whose backgrounds are as diverse as their motivations for competing. It's the Olympics for geek kids, and Jeff Blitz's 2003 documentary Spellbound does a fine job of chronicling the obsessive drive necessary to become one of the 249 finalists culled from some nine million spelling-bee contestants nationwide. The first half of the film introduces the contestants, including Angela, whose Spanish-speaking father came to the U.S. from Mexico before her birth; young violinist Nupur, daughter of Indian immigrants; Ashley, an African-American girl from Washington, D.C., who's made it to the finals despite little support from her school or peers; and the barely functional hypergeek Harry, already destined as a prepubescent to become that prattling guy at the comic book store that everyone wants to punch in the nose. Having become acquainted with these kids — some privileged, some not — we then follow them through the nail-biting suspense of the spelling bee itself, a far more tension-inducing bit of cinema than one might imagine. But while the competition focuses on narrowing the field to just one winner, Spellbound is less about win-loss propositions than about the peculiar American can-do drive that resulted in these kids competing at all, some the children of immigrants, some rich, some poor, but all justifiably proud that they've managed to distinguish themselves through hard work and talent. Perhaps a bit overhyped on its release, Spellbound is good, but it did deserve to lose the Best Documentary Oscar to Bowling for Columbine — the film celebrates academics and diligence without ever getting preachy. Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a very good full-frame transfer (1.33:1), considering the original video source has a made-on-the-fly documentary quality, with solid DD 2.0 stereo audio in English or French with optional French subtitles. The filmmakers discuss the making of the movie in a very informative (if a bit dry) commentary track, and there's some fun extras — "Spellers" is a text-only bio feature on the eight contestants, while "Where Are They Now?" gives a short update on each with new still photos — although it's disappointing that they didn't revisit the kids and shoot new video for this feature. The "Bonus Footage" section presents three more kids, whose stories didn't make it into the film (although they're no less interesting than the ones who did), a downloadable "Educational Guide" with lots of information about spelling bees, and there's an "Interactive Hangman" DVD-ROM game. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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