May 28, 2003 at 12:00 am

The NBA Finals it’s not, but each year in the waning days of May the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee offers more than 200 children the chance to vie for a $10,000 prize, plus the fame and fortune that accompanies being able to spell words such as “euonym,” “xanthosis” and “prospicience.” Coinciding with this year’s bee — which takes place May 28 and 29 and will air on ESPN — is the Motown release of Spellbound, a documentary that follows eight participants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee as they struggle with words that mere mortals only run across in, uh, spelling tests — and in movie reviews about movies about spelling tests.

Each of the eight kids has their own story, and, not surprisingly, the most affecting tales are those of the underprivileged. Angela Arenivar is the child of Mexican immigrants who sneaked over the border several decades ago; her father doesn’t even speak English. But the pride on his face, and on the face of her older brother, is clear as they talk to the camera of her drive to succeed. It’s the A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N-D-R-E-A-M and it’s just one of many. The parents of fellow spellers Neil Kadakia and Nupur Lala both hail from India and talk of the amazing opportunities available for the children here in the United States. Even more striking, three of the last four national champions have been first-generation Americans, and the 1998 champ was from Kingston, Jamaica.

Spellbound shows the contestants studying long hours and doing everything to gain an edge on the competition. They learn foreign languages (etymology, don’t you know) and devote summer vacation to the declination of verbs; they work out with hired orthography guns, stare at Bee prep computer programs presumably written by other spelling nuts, and are drilled by their proud, driven parents. But for each embarrassingly involved parent, there’s a mom from the projects who can do nothing but marvel at how far her daughter goes. (The daughter, Ashley White, receives guidance from her English teacher at her inner-city D.C. junior high, but puts most of her spelling faith in God; you get the sense from her teacher that the girl herself is a gift from God to the D.C. public schools.)

Through its interviews and the sometimes uncomfortably tense moments captured from the National Bee stage, Spellbound isn’t quite a comedy of the perils of adolescence or a tragedy of the academic Little League parent. It’s a happy combination of the two, and that spells entertainment.


Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].