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It’s virtually impossible to group the words spelling, bee and documentary together without instantly recalling 2003’s Oscar-nominated Spellbound, a warm-hearted breakout focused on a group of smart young contenders at the 1999 Scripps national competition. It’s a comparison that those involved with Netflix’s Spelling the Dream are well aware of, with a clip-assisted callout midway, followed by parents referencing it as a regular family watch. But rather than a regurgitation of a film loved by so many, director Sam Rega is covering similar ground but from a different perspective, revisiting Scripps but highlighting the overwhelming majority of Indian American finalists.
His film starts with the historic 2019 final, which saw an unprecedented eight-way tie, notable not only for its irregularity but for the dominance of Indian Americans, who made up seven of the eight students. As the documentary depressingly reminds us, the reaction from many was one of pathetic indignation, outraged that a quintessentially American competition was being led by those wrongly considered not to be countrymen. It’s a bleak chapter in what’s mostly a pleasant and spirited, if rather slight, watch that transports us back to 2017 and the journey taken by a handful of kids from regionals to the big day. The familiar sports movie formula is interspersed with an examination of just why so many Indian American children perform highly within the competition with talking heads, including comedian Hari Kondabolu, attempting to add depth to a discussion that’s previously been mired in bitter racism.
It’s undeniably satisfying to spend time with Raga’s choice of subjects who are as engaged as they are engaging, excitedly preparing for a contest that requires an almost otherworldly knack for spelling, one that most of us can’t even begin to grasp. The disproportionate prevalence of this knack within Indian American children is explained by some in the film as having a great deal to do with the need for them to be bilingual, mastering more than one language at such young ages. There’s also a discussion of how many skilled Indian doctors have moved to the US since Lyndon B Johnson’s 1965 Immigration Act and have often been somewhat forced to take on roles in rural parts of the country, allowing for a spread of their children who they inspire to take advantage of the opportunities they have surrounding them.
The doc takes us back to 1985 with the first ever Indian American winner of Scripps, Balu Natarajan, whose triumph provided representation for others who followed, who could see someone who looked like them achieving success in a culture dominated by white victory. Not that anyone involved with the documentary ever needed to justify why Indian American kids regularly outperform their white peers but Raga provides a persuasive potted history of what’s led to this before spending the meat of his film following 2017’s crop to the stage. Having witnessed this narrative mostly used for stories of athleticism, it’s a pleasure to see brainpower heralded and rewarded instead, although as with many youth competitions, there’s always an uneasiness surrounding the intense pressures attached. The youngest contestant, the endlessly charming Akash, is just seven and it’s painful watching him cry when dealing with defeat later in the film, a lofty high swiftly followed by a difficult, hard-to-process low. It’s a valid reminder that while these children might possess an advanced intelligence in many ways, emotionally they’re still children dealing with an extreme situation.
It’s a brief film, less than 90 minutes and arguably one that could have been a bit shorter, and while it doesn’t have the same tense grip of Spellbound, it’s an amiable enough diversion. It’s not just an impressive display of linguistics but also a reminder of what American success is and should be perceived as, a reminder that many, sadly, still need to be made aware of.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Spelling the Dream review – slight but charming Netflix documentary | Documentary films