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He’s a brainiac: finalist Ted Brigham in Spellbound.

A Way With Words
By Shawn Stone

Spellbound
Directed by Jeff Blitz

In watching a competition, ispectators often take as much enjoyment in lambasting the loser as in celebrating the winner. Someone would have to be truly heartless, however, to root against any of the kids in Spellbound, a documentary about the annual National Spelling Bee.

The National Spelling Bee?

Believe it or not, a group of kids under age 15 trying to spell increasingly difficult words in a high-pressure elimination competition makes for terrific cinema. While there is a kids-do-the-darndest-things element—funny, outsized reactions and cute twitches—this pales in comparison to the intelligence and grace the competitors show.

First, however, the filmmakers profile eight young people who have won regional competitions and are on their way to Washington, D.C., for the national bee. These segments are deft, giving the audience a solid impression of each kid and their personal circumstances. The stories are compelling. The children include April Degideo, a bar owner’s daughter who spends her summer vacation studying words eight hours a day; Angela Arenivar, whose illegal-immigrant farmworker parents never learned to speak English; Ted Brigham, considered a freak in rural Missouri because of his intelligence; Nupar Lala, a soft-spoken but self-assured object of jealousy for the boys in her class; Harry Altman, a funny kid who talks incessantly; and Neil Kadakia, a bright child of upper-class immigrants who spare no expense to make him a winner, including paying 1,000 people back home in India to pray during the national bee.

The filmmakers occasionally ape the smart-ass Michael Moore style to highlight the way class and race affect both the spellers and the competition. Some of this is purely funny. The rancher who employs Angela’s father is revealed to be a cartoon racist who proudly describes his longtime employee as a “good” Mexican; polo- playing Emily Stagg talks about leaving the au pair at home in Connecticut so that the trip to the bee can be quality “family time.”

Mostly, though, the filmmakers let the images tell a more serious story: While Neil practices for the bee on his computer, Ashley White, a determined Washington, D.C. native who lives in the projects, and Angela, the farmhand’s daughter, are shown poring over dictionaries and using homemade study aids. This adds an interesting extra layer of tension to the competition: Will the working-class kids from public schools be able to compete with kids who’ve had every possible advantage?

The final competition is intense and incredibly nerve-racking; at the matinee screening I attended, the audience regularly gasped and sighed as the kids spelled—or, heartbreakingly, failed to spell—absurdly difficult words. It’s wonderful to see the kids excel under pressure, though; the way Emily repeatedly picked apart the foreign-language origins of words to figure out the correct spellings made me feel particularly stupid.

It’s impossible not to root for particular spellers, though this reviewer will admit no schadenfreude at seeing some of the other kids lose. (They all worked too hard.) The real success of Spellbound, however, is in the way it tells the dramatic stories of eight interesting kids in a recognizable version of the United States.

Stalled at the Starting Line

2 Fast 2 Furious
Directed by John Singleton

Little-known Paul Walker had the good fortune to be cast in the 2001 sleeper hit The Fast and the Furious, a high-octane actioner set in the Los Angeles subculture of illegal drag racing. Playing a rookie cop sent undercover to bust a ring of car thieves, Walker had the even greater fortune of riding Vin Diesel’s coattails: Diesel’s emotionally complicated drag-strip champ turned out to be a starmaking role. Blonde and convincingly unhip, Walker worked well as the outsider among the film’s authentically etched ethnic characters. The icing on the asphalt came from director Rob Cohen, who seemingly put the viewer behind the dashboard of the film’s exciting race scenes. Boosted by tanks of nitrous oxide and computerized consoles, the illicitly customized cars zoom down the city streets like rockets on wheels.

It might come as small surprise that the sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, lacks just about everything that made the original such a blast, starting with Diesel, whose character vroomed off into the sunset in the original, with the blessings of Walker’s cop, Brian O’Conner. For 2 Fast, Brian is reinstated as a policeman, in order to infiltrate the drag-race circuit of Miami. Even though it’s directed by John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), this laughably lame attempt to cash in on the first Fast’s edgy street cred could be more accurately titled Hot Wheels Hot Pants. Most indicative of the change in ’tude is the token woman racer, a high-heeled hood ornament played by supermodel Devon Aoki. This wispy character, who has little to do aside from high-fiving Brian, is a deplorable substitute for Michelle Rodriguez’s girl-powered mechanic.

At least Brian has a new bro, Roman Pearce (model-rapper Tyrese), whose name is more imaginative than his personality: Roman is a hotheaded ex-con who drives like the devil. Physically magnetic, and sporting an admirably satirical chuckle, Tyrese practically wipes the untalented Walker off the screen, despite Singleton’s best efforts to turn Brian into one of the boyz. As stiff as a prep-school uniform, Brian says “Let’s do this” a lot (actually, so does everyone), yet he still comes off as a phony.

But this is a phony movie from start to finish line, as the cheesy racing sequences so disappointingly prove. The preposterous plot—something to do with a sadistic crimelord who launders money through his fleet of race cars—becomes quite unpleasant after veering off on an idiotic tangent involving an overheated rat and a fat detective on the take. One-liners referencing Miami Vice and The Dukes of Hazzard are more pathetic than amusing: The script is too closely a combo of both for any self-parody. Even die-hard fans of the first Fast may find the sequel about as enjoyable as 90 miles of bad road.

—Ann Morrow


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