Revenge of the Nerds
During this third season of American Idol, UC Berkeley engineering student William Hung performed Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” and became, not an idol, but a pop icon. Hung’s nerdy appearance, thin vocals and stilted dance moves made him a laughingstock before the judges. But his utter sincerity and the resolve with which he accepted criticism (“I already gave my best, I have no regrets at all”) won him the respect and adoration of fans nationwide. Although some have mocked his naïve performance, his cult following suggests that he has also struck a chord, reminding us that the spirit, if not the reality, of the American Dream is alive and well.
This same spirit is the over-arching theme of Spellbound. Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary follows eight young contestants through a very different kind of competition: the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. The film provides snapshots of each speller, their parents and hometown, creating a diverse mosaic of American family life. Mexican immigrants, Angela’s parents don’t speak English; her father tends cows on a Texas ranch. Ted comes from a working class family in an economically depressed Missouri town where basketball is considered more important than brains. Middle-class Nupur is the daughter of immigrant Indian parents and a classic second-generation overachiever. Despite differences of class, geography and race, they are all caught in that awkward age range (10 to 14 years old) between the innocence of children and the jadedness of teenagers. They know enough of the world to understand ambition and hope, but are not yet self-conscious enough to be embarrassed by it. In other words, they are nerds.
Merriam-Webster defines “nerd” as: “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” Studying as much as eight or nine hours a day, the contestants are indeed “slavishly devoted” to spelling. In their braces, frumpy hairdos and ill-fitting clothes, they show us what pure devotion looks like.
But along with unfettered aspiration comes the insecurity of adolescence. Spellbound manages to capture these emotional nuances with a revealing yet gentle eye, allowing them to percolate quietly just below the surface. For example, April survives the first day of competition at the National Bee only to put herself down, “I don’t even expect to get past the first round tomorrow.” But her modesty is disingenuous, revealing the circular, self-protective logic of the know-it-all: if you say you’re going to lose, no one can fault you when you do.
Failure, after all, is always just one letter away. Although Ashley ends up in tears and Harry blames the announcer for mispronouncing his losing word, the rest of the contestants display a maturity and grace far surpassing that of the average American Idol loser. Angela states diplomatically, “I already feel like a champion just getting here,” and Neil rationalizes his ninth place finish by carefully enumerating the three goals he did achieve. We can read the disappointment in their faces, but we admire them all the more for their stoicism. The film is less a portrayal of achievement than a celebration of “doing your best,” no matter the outcome.
In this process, we learn almost as much about parenting as we do about adolescence. The DVD’s bonus footage includes stories of three spellers who were cut from the final film. Cody’s father, who operates a robot in a steel factory, speaks more candidly than most when he jokes: “We’re old, our lives stink, and we have to live vicariously through you… What do you think we had you for?” His comment reveals the mixture of bitterness and admiration that accompanies the hope that his children will do better in life than he has.
Conversely, April’s mom (whom April compares to Edith Bunker) channels her anxiety into boundless optimism. Her motto comes from a pad of decorator stationery: “Bee Happy.” Even as we recognize the excitement and genuine pride that inspires her borrowed wisdom, we’re laughing at her kitschy, overblown cheer. The camera accomplishes this double vision by lingering just a little longer than necessary on its subjects, allowing their comments to sink in to reveal humor or irony. The parents nobly try to balance high hopes with unconditional love, but we see their foibles and shortcomings too.
In particular, Neil’s father comes across as extremely over-bearing, using his obvious wealth to bombard Neil with a series of language and spelling tutors and drilling him incessantly from a scientifically selected list of words. However, on the DVD’s commentary track, Blitz, producer Sean Welch and editor Yana Gorskaya shed new light on the relationship. We learn that Neil was the one who decided to compete, and that his parents, rather than pushing him to succeed, are doing everything within their considerable economic power to help their son achieve his goals. What originally looked like a story of parental pressure is refigured as a hyperbolic expression of parental devotion.
And so, Spellbound is most compelling as portrait of American family life. As William Hung inspires a mixture of ridicule and affection, the spellers and their parents are simultaneously laughable and endearing. We see their flaws and conceits, but we forgive them because they have “heart.” This is brought home on the DVD’s commentary track when the filmmakers recount how they asked each kid to spell their favorite word. Most of the kids picked the longest, most arcane word they could think of, but the filmmakers were more impressed with the selection made by Ashley, an African American girl from Washington D.C. Suggesting that words represent more than just a ladder to success, one letter at time, Ashley eschewed verbal pyrotechnics in favor of a simpler word: “Love. L-O-V.E.”