Spelling the Dream

 

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Good timing for another documentary that focuses on the world of the spelling bee.

 
Spelling the Dream
   

We have here a film guaranteed by its very nature to be enjoyed by those who choose to view it. They will approach this documentary by Sam Rega aware that it is about a spelling bee and will find that it delivers exactly what that promises. The focus is on that celebrated American institution the Scripps National Spelling Bee held annually near Washington D.C. and in particular it studies the 90th competition held in 2017. It does this by following four contestants, youngsters aiming to win regional rounds and thus to be eligible for the final. We meet these chosen youngsters and hear from them and from their parents about the hard work of preparation, after which the film follows through to show which of them will be among the fifteen finalists.

 

This is a format that could be thought of as a formula since it can be applied to any areas that find youngsters participating in competitive events, be they dancers, singers or whatever - indeed, as Spelling the Dream acknowledges, the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound has already adopted this approach in the context of the spelling bee. But, if it is done well, familiarity with the genre does not lessen the appeal and Sam Rega's film has picked on four contenders who come over in an unforced way that amply confirms the extent of their commitment. All four are Indian-American youngsters, a fact that gives then a good chance of doing well in the bee as becomes clear since Spelling the Dream is at pains to point out that a high proportion of winners share that background - something confirmed by the fact that thirteen of 2017's fifteen finalists were in that category. That the children come from families who have immigrated to America showing a determination to apply themselves and to succeed seems to play its part in this, as does the fact that many of them are multi-lingual.

 

To put all this in context the film contains comments from a range of Indian-Americans as well as from a number of others connected with the bee and its appeal as a televised event. Dr. Jacques Bailly, one of the leading figures in the bee final, describes it as a celebration of learning and there is no doubt that Rega's film is intended as an endorsement of that. It does take on board the issue of the possibility of some children being pressurised by parents to participate but suggests, perhaps a little too simplistically, that so much effort is required that only children who feel positive about the experience could keep it up. That said, the children seen here, many of them pre-teens (no contestants are over fifteen), do communicate a genuine enthusiasm and, with those on view extending well beyond the central four, there is a real sense of the self-esteem that the bee engenders among the competitors while also providing telling role models for other young Indian-Americans. Seeing the bee as an example of valuable American assimilation is another positive and one that deserves to be underlined given the racism all too apparent in America today (it's even an attitude that has been known to foster unfair resentment of so many American born children who are of Indian descent winning top places in the bee). Spelling the Dream is admittedly in no way an innovative piece of work, but it is ably presented and a key part of its very welcome traditional outlook is its endorsement of America as a melting pot and a land of opportunity.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Shourav Dasari, Akash Vukoti, Tejas Muthusamy, Ashrita Gandhari, Nupur Lala, Jacques Bailly,  Valerie Browning, Hari Kondabolu, Fareed Zakaria, Sanjay Gupta, Kevin Negandhi, Ananya Vinay, Rohan  Rajeev.

 

Dir Sam Rega, Pro Sam Rega and Chris Weller, Screenplay Sam Rega and Chris Weller, Ph Corey Eisenstein, Ed Sam Rega, Music Zack Wright.

 

Exit Zero Productions-Netflix.
82 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 3 June 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. U.