The shadow of “Spellbound,” the 2002 Academy Award-nominated documentary on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, looms large over Netflix’s newest spelling-adjacent documentary “Spelling the Dream.”
At one point, director Sam Rega even asks the parents of a speller if they’ve seen “Spellbound.” The mother nods wearily as she pulls out well-loved DVD copies of “Spellbound” and Doug Atchison’s lovely scripted “Akeelah and the Bee.”
“We watch these before every single competition,” she says.
Such a scene is a lovely distillation of the power of film – a reminder of how a story well-told can inspire in the face of challenges. But “Spelling the Dream” is probably not the sort of film this speller’s family would put on repeat.
It’s disjointed – jumping between decades’ worth of bees and interviews with talking heads who don’t have a whole lot to add to the conversation. It asks an interesting question – Why have Indian Americans won Scripps 12 years in a row?- and forgets to come up with a compelling answer.
It starts well though – with footage from the stunning 2019 bee, where no less than eight spellers tied for first place. This was an unprecedented first in the history of the bee, and seven of the eight winners were of Indian American descent.
Now, that has the makings of a captivating story, I thought, but “Spelling the Dream” is not about that bee.
It’s not about any bee really, although footage from the 2017 bee is used heavily in the film’s latter half. It’s not even about the spellers or their families, and the vast majority of them come across as thinly drawn sketches of human beings.
No, the film is all about answering the Indian American question. And Rega calls upon some famous Indian Americans in pursuit of the answer including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, journalist Fareed Zakaria and comedian Hari Kondabolu. But the answer these talking heads come up with is vastly unexciting – it basically just comes down to work ethic and a willingness to learn languages, which is pretty much what I expected.
Along the way, the talking heads touch on some interesting ideas- how Scripps provides much-needed public representation of Indian Americans and how detractors will argue that the bee has been taken over by “foreigners” in recent years. But Rega abandons these ideas fairly quickly.
The time spent with the spellers isn’t much better, largely because Rega throws out a lot of softball questions – How long have you been spelling? How much do you practice each week?- that don’t lead anywhere particularly interesting
If “Spelling the Dream” (rated TV-G) has one saving grace, it is the adorable show-stealing seven-year-old Akash Vukoti, the only speller in the film who manages to rise above the film’s chaotic disjointedness. Vukoti, the only first-grader to ever qualify for Scripps, is the most precocious child prodigy ever, and he has a true showman’s sense of energy, charisma and comic timing, even though he is still too short to reach the microphone.
Give Akash a film of his own, and I’ll be there. Ditto for those amazing 2019 winners. But “Spelling the Dream” is passable at best.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.