Spelling the Dream (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Breaking the Bee

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Netflix documentary “Spelling the Dream”, which is also known as “Breaking the Bee”, examines one interesting current ethnic trend of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but it only comes to scratch the surface in the end. Although it is fairly entertaining thanks to the undeniable spirit and personality of several young contestants on whom it happens to observe, the documentary often feels unfocused and scattershot as busily juggling its human subjects during its short running time (82 minutes). It inevitably comes to depend a lot on the expected suspense around who will be the winner at the end of the competition, and that is a mild disappointment in my humble opinion.

It is a bit shame that director/co-writer/co-producer Sam Rega and his crew members could not look closely on the extraordinary outcome of the 2019 Scripps National Spring Bee. No less than 8 competitors became the champions together after going through so many rounds together without any misspelling, and that was certainly a sight as uplifting as the climactic scene of “Akeelah and the Bee” (2006), a little overlooked drama film about a young bright African American girl who comes to discover her exceptional talent for spelling bee competition.

Anyway, many people were amazed or amused to see that seven of these eight special champions were Indian American kids, and, as the documentary soon points out, that is no surprise at all considering that Indian American competitors have constantly swept the Scripps National Spring Bee during last 10 years. Since the competition had the first Indian American winner in the 1980s, lots of Indian American kids have gone all the way for winning at the Scripps National Spring Bee, and the amazing winning records from them are simply the culmination of the efforts of many years from them and their families and communities.

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During its early part, the documentary delves a bit into how this exceptional achievement is possible for these Indian American kids. First of all, they grew up under highly educated parents, many of whom were easily permitted to emigrate to US because of their educational and professional backgrounds. They are usually engineers or doctors, and they are certainly well aware of the importance of education, while hoping to provide the best opportunities for their children who will grow up as Americans.

Of course, learning how to speak, read, and write English comes first above all else for their children, and that usually leads their children to spelling bee competitions. After all, for showing your exemplary cultural assimilation into the American society, what can be possibly more awesome than demonstrating the sheer mastery of English vocabulary in front of many others?

Once there came a breakthrough thanks to the aforementioned Indian American winner at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the 1980s, more Indian American kids have been encouraged to enter the competition during next three decades, and we hear about how their local communities have fully supported and nurtured this growing trend. Having already gone through rigorous processes of training and competing within their local communities, many of Indian American spelling bee competitors are usually quite prepared from the start, and they accordingly come to show more excellence compared to others.

As cheerfully revolving around four different Indian American kids, the documentary shows us how much they enjoy their preparation process even though they feel pressured more and more as the upcoming Scripps National Spelling Bee approaches closer day by day. All of them are bright and plucky in each own way, and each of them has each own method to memorize the spelling of thousands of many different tricky words such as ‘zwitterion’ or ‘xanthochroid’.

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Of course, they cannot possibly memorize every English word in the world, and they surely hope that they will not come across an unfamiliar word in the middle of the competition. When Shourav, who is supposed to be the most confident one in the bunch, is asked to spell a word which is short but may cause his exit, the level of tension is certainly high as his family members brace for themselves along with other audiences, and everyone is relieved when he spells that word right in the end.

Although there is always some crushing bitterness whenever a competitor comes to exit due to a wrong spelling, the documentary keeps the mood light and cheery as if it were afraid of making us feel bad. In case of those deplorable racist reactions hurled at the Indian American competitors of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the documentary simply laughs at these stinking online comments a little. At least, I will not deny that I was amused a bit by one of them, whose misspelling takes me back to the photo of an idiotic racist who did not even know how to spell ‘moron’.

On the whole, “Spelling the Dream” may satisfy and enlighten you if you are not particularly familiar with spelling bee competitions. I cannot easily recommend it because it does not go beyond what I learned from “Akeelah and the Bee” and other notable spelling bee competition movies such as “Bee Season” (2005) and “Bad Words” (2013), which incidentally has a little plucky Indian American kid as one of its main characters. To be frank with you, I would love to hear the opinions and thoughts on that mean-spirited black comedy film from these four kids and their family members in the documentary.

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