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You’ll be C-H-A-R-M-E-D by ‘Spelling the Dream’

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Full disclosure: I love a spelling bee.

As someone who spent a little time spelling competitively in his youth (three-time school champ with a couple of regional finals appearances, nbd), I will always have a place of affection in my heart for the bee, one of the relatively few competitive scholastic outlets for the academically gifted as opposed to the athletically inclined.

Of course, even at my best, the difference between myself and the true elites of the spellosphere was the same as that between, say, a decent high school baseball player (which I also was) and an All-Star big leaguer (which I decidedly was not).

“Spelling the Dream,” a new Netflix documentary written and directed by Sam Rega, follows a handful of those elite competitors, young people who have the skill and the will to reach the top of the mountain – the Scripps National Spelling Bee. These kids have a lot in common, of course, but this film focuses on something that connects them with a significant number of their fellow lexicographical comrades in arms – their cultural identity. Specifically, their heritage as Indian-Americans.

Since the first winner of Indian heritage took the crown back in 1985, Indian-Americans have grown increasingly dominant in the spelling world. To wit, the past dozen championships have been won by kids of Indian descent; in 2019, when a group of eight kids essentially broke the bee and forced an eight-way tie – an event that leads off this doc – seven of those were Indian kids.

“Spelling the Dream” focuses on four competitors during the 2017 season. These four young people – Shourav Dasari and Tejas Muthusamy, both 14; Ashrita Gandhari, age 10; and Akash Vukoti, age 7 – are followed on their journey as they seek to hoist aloft the greatest trophy in competitive spelling. Each is on their own version of the quest – this marks the last hurrah for Shourav and Tejas, while Ashrita’s sits at the midpoint and young Akash’s is just getting started – but there’s also plenty of common ground.

We meet the kids and their families, watching as they train and work toward their ultimate goal. It’s hard work, to be sure, but there’s none of the overbearing parental pressure that you might expect. This isn’t about children being forced toward this goal; there’s a very real and palpable love of the game in these kids, no different than that of a soccer or basketball or hockey player.

Interspersed throughout, there are talking head interstitials from assorted notables of Indian heritage. Folks like Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, comedian Hari Kondabolu and ESPN personality Kevin Negandhi, all reflecting on the importance of the spelling bee to their cultural community. All of these conversations focus on the joy derived from watching their community’s stretch of dominance on the Scripps stage.

“Spelling the Dream” is a delight, a charming look at a few of the precocious youngsters who view spelling through the same lens that others might view sport. They are cheerful and charismatic, to be sure, but make no mistake – they want to win. Shourav earned the moniker “the Michael Jordan of spelling” during his competitive years; his combination of talent and swagger was on full display. Ashrita is as adept as she is adorable, while Tejas glows with enthusiasm whenever he’s on screen. And young Akash is just a hoot, brimming over with the typical enthusiastic mania of a seven-year-old; that he’s also one of the world’s best spellers is just icing on the cake.

Look, this is very much a feel-good kind of movie. If you’re looking for the win-at-all-costs ferocity of pushy parents or other less savory aspects of kid-oriented competition, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. “Spelling the Dream” is strictly celebratory; Rega’s camera focuses firmly on the joy. No, it isn’t all triumph – after all, not everyone can win – but one could argue that the director is at his best when he is presenting those moments where the journey ends, treating his subjects with a gentle dignity. Because lest we forget, they’re still just kids – kids who are dealing with what probably seems in the moment to be the worst thing to ever happen to them.

I love watching spelling bees. I love watching these kids be celebrated for their gifts. It’s a damned shame that we won’t get a Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2020 – so many kids out there have devoted countless hours to reaching a pinnacle that was taken from them – but it’s nice to have a film like “Spelling the Dream” for a little bit of compensation.

This is a lovely, light piece of documentary filmmaking featuring a collection of gifted youngsters with their eyes on the prize. It is sweet and thoughtful, an engaging glimpse of the importance this event holds for the Indian-American cultural community. Expect to be C-H-A-R-M-E-D by “Spelling the Dream.”

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 04 June 2020 10:28


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