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Review: 'Spelling The Dream'

I know what you’re thinking.

That a documentary about a national spelling bee competition could not possibly be worth watching. In the spirit of full disclosure, and as much as I hate to admit it, that thought very briefly flashed through my mind before I hit the play button.

But Spelling the Dream quickly dispels your doubts.

It falls squarely into that narrow category of first-rate documentary films that is both informative and entertaining. And genuinely interesting.

In recent years the Scripps National Spelling Bee Competition has risen from relative scholarly obscurity to full-blown, sports-like coverage on ESPN.

While that might seem illogical at a glance, it turns out that the world of spelling bees is not really unlike the world of sports.

Both involve a dream of glory and recognition and the long, difficult road of training and preparation required to get there.

It’s a story of determination and will power.

In the words made famous in ABC’s Wide World of Sports opening credit sequence decades ago, it’s all about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Without exaggeration or hype, it’s all here.

Spelling the Dream opens with the remarkable finale of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee Competition that ended with a stunning, unprecedented 8-way tie.

Even more remarkably, seven of the eight winners were Indian-American contestants.

People began to wonder how or why Indian-American youngsters came to be so dominant in this War of the Words, and that’s what the film proceeds to investigate.

What follows is a very watchable, very interesting story told through the interviews of experts, celebrity commentators, parents of these gifted students and, of course, the students themselves.

We witness them tackling bizarre, obscure, complicated words that most of us never knew even existed.

They are the kinds of words that might appear on your computer screen if you collapsed face down on your keyboard at 3 a.m. in a failed attempt at pulling an all-nighter.

Strange words that you might only encounter on a deep dive into an unabridged dictionary on a rainy day.

We’re talking works like “omphalopsychite” and “auftaktigkeit” just to name a few.

Often, they spell them effortlessly.

Occasionally, they visibly struggle, appearing to write out imaginary letters on the palms of their hands with their index fingers as they try to dredge up the correct answer.

You can feel the intense pressure.

The suspense is tangible.

The pace of the movie is brisk and energetic.

Despite the moments of inevitable, crushing defeat, it manages to be an enjoyable, uplifting experience with a positive vibe about motivated young minds and supportive loving parents.

But, in the end, it plays like a sports film, following a small group of young teens on their way to what someone in the film jokingly describes as “The Indian Super Bowl.”

It’s not a bad comparison.

Following the grueling competition among the best and the brightest, someone is hailed as the world champion.

Someone gets to prove that they are the best at what they do.

Both ESPN and the producers of Spelling the Dream deserve credit for turning the spotlight on what many might consider to be a boring academic activity and elevating it to the level of exciting intellectual competition.

So often, the abilities and achievements of exceptional students and scholars are overlooked and overshadowed in what has become a sports culture here in America.

Think about it.

When you mention the name of a college or university the immediate response is often something like, “great football team” or “great basketball team.”

Somewhere along the way, academics and education at the high school level and college level have taken a back seat to sports.

Spelling the Dream makes clear that this doesn’t have to be the case.

Bright young students can be fun to watch as they strive for excellence and recognition.

We marvel at their skill level, root for them when the going gets tough and cheer their victories.

They can inspire all of us to do our best and follow our dreams. And that, more than anything, can spell success.


Spelling the Dream streams on Netflix beginning June 3.

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