‘Spelling the Dream’: Film Review

Lisa Kennedy

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Forget about spelling them. There are words in “Spelling the Dream” that mere mortals may not even be able to say, even after a spelling bee pronouncer repeats it, gives the language of origin, repeats it again and uses it in a sentence. But the young’uns in this entertaining documentary — about the dominance of South Asian kids in the nation’s No. 1 spelling bee — appear undaunted.

Available on Netflix, “Spelling the Dream” begins with arguably its most exuberant moment: 2019’s Scripps National Spelling in which, after 20 rounds, eight kids tied for the title. Cue the parental fist pumps and roars. Seven of the winners were of South Asian or Indian descent; just one was white. When the kids did a victory lap and appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, he looked at the light-haired girl and said, “What kind of name is Erin?”

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“Spelling the Dream” provides some answers to the question of “What gives?” Twelve straight national championships? Twenty-seven of the last 35 winners? Really? Featuring four determined competitors for the 2017 competition, the doc celebrates – and genially interrogates — that impressive run.

Director Sam Rega intersperses at-home chats with the spellers (who range in age from seven to 14), with parent sit-downs and interviews with some well-known figures, among them CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, political ace Fareed Zakaria, ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi and comedian/podcast host Hari Kondabolu. A few past winners now grown add their perspectives. The filmmaker also rummages in the archives to provide a lesson on immigration. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which allowed skilled South East Asians, Africans and Caribbean professionals to put down roots in the U.S. or rejoin family members already in there.

It is the adults who do the ruminating on what it means — personally, culturally — that Indian American children appear to own an event so representative of “America.” Why the quotation marks? Because all the filmmaker had to do was consult that bastion of the unexamined, unmuzzled life — the Twittersphere — where it was all too easy for the him to find xenophobic, racist tweets. About children, no less.

Although fairly staid in its approach, “Spelling the Dream” shows why Scripps National Bee has been such a fine fit for ESPN. It was first shown on the sports behemoth in 1994. (This year’s edition was canceled.) While their talent can look preternatural, wizardly, even, these kids practice, practice, practice. “He’s the Michael Jordan of spelling,” boast a couple of Shourav Dasari’s friends, referencing the legendarily hard-working NBA star. To win, says a contest expert, a competitor has to master between 60,000 and 100,000 words.

Tejas Muthusamy, 14, values the hard work of it all. Ten-year-old Ashrita Gandhari states she doesn’t expect to win this time but is aiming to place in the top 50. That confession doesn’t come across as self-defeating but as strategic, goal setting. And “Spelling the Dream” provides a great opening for talking to young people about the vital minuet of mindset and skill set.

With the exception of Akash Vukoti, the kids exhibit a long-game view. And, he’s seven, so he can be forgiven. Even so, the impish scene-stealer — the first first grader to compete in the national spelling bee — spells a 47-letter word.

Not unlike their children, some parents are more intense than others. Asharita’s mom gets a little giddy at the fact of the family attending “Bee Week” festivities, while Shourav’s father — standing with his arms crossed, his mouth slightly set — quietly boasts about the proprietary database they’ve perfected over the years. This is the last year his son can compete; so the pressure’s on. “We expect him to win,” dad says. So does ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi. When Shourav dispatches a word almost as fast as the national bee official read it, it’s pure toss-the-bat swagger.

And now a shout out to Scripps National Bee longtime pronouncer Jacques Bailly, who exudes such warm authority that the kids seem to sense he’s fair but also rooting for each of them. “We’ve thrown the dictionary at you and so far, you are showing this dictionary who’s boss,” he told the eight finalists headed into the final round of the record-breaking 2019 gathering.

Ultimately, it’s Akash, Ashrita, Shourav and Tejas who make the best case for the pleasures of dedication but also the uniqueness of every child. As with other sporting events, there will be thrills, some agony and, yes, a good crying jag after the bell tings to signal a misspelling. While there may be no crying in baseball, turns out there are some tears in spelling.

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