The Films of Jeffrey Blitz
Spellbound (May 22/03)
Spellbound details the efforts of eight children as they compete in the National Spelling Bee, with the movie essentially split into two parts: the first introduces the various kids and their families, while the second follows the Bee itself. It's hard to say which half is more effective, as both are completely necessary. By allowing us to get know each of these contestants, the Spelling Bee portion of the film becomes surprisingly suspenseful because we've come to care about each of the eight children. But the most intriguing aspect of Spellbound are the kids themselves, all of whom come from different backgrounds and cultures. By examining each of their lives, the film also works as a fascinating look at contemporary American life. As we begin to meet the contestants, it becomes increasingly clear that these kids couldn't be more different from one another. A portrait of Emily, who lives in Connecticut and rides horses in her spare time, is followed by a glimpse into Ashley's life, who comes from a single parent household and lives in Washington's inner city. The other six contestants are equally disparate, and easily represent a cross section of America's population. And as we begin to meet the other spellers and learn what's motivating each of these kids, it becomes increasingly clear that vastly different factors are provoking hours of hard work. For Neil, whose family came to America from India before he was born, it's seemingly to please his tough father. As we listen to the older man explain his incredibly complicated system for learning words, it's fairly obvious that Neil isn't necessarily doing all this for himself. But the most compelling portrait by far is that of Angela, a young girl hailing from Texas. Her story is remarkable because her parents don't even speak English and evidently entered the United States from Mexico illegally sometime before she was born. As her older brother tells us the story of their father (and even winds up close to tears as he explains how proud everyone is of her), Angela becomes the film's underdog. So, when the time invariably comes for the Spelling Bee and the kids are slowly eliminated one by one, it becomes awfully hard not to share in their disappointment. But with the exception of one contestant who breaks down into tears, they all have a rather positive outlook on the experience (most are just happy the whole thing is over). And by the time the winner is revealed, it's almost besides the point; all of these kids are winners, the film seems to be saying, and should be applauded for getting as far as they did. It's certainly an uplifting message, and one that ensures the movie should have more staying power than a topical, politically-inclined documentary.
Despite an opening half hour that sporadically threatens to overwhelm the viewer with quirkiness, Rocket Science eventually comes off as an engaging and surprisingly affecting little drama that's buoyed by Reece Thompson's superb central performance. Thompson plays Hal Hefner, a shy, stuttering teen who's taken aback after the verbose Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) invites him to try out for their school's debate team. His self-confidence boosted by his attraction to Ginny, Hal agrees to give it a shot - although, due to a series of events too spoilerish in nature to reveal, he's finally forced to turn to turn to former debate champ Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto) for help. Rocket Science marks the feature-length fictional debut of Spellbound filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz, and there's little doubt that the writer/director's penchant for stylized, downright self-conscious dialogue initially holds the viewer at arm's length from the characters. The increasingly unpredictable storyline - coupled with some seriously impressive performances - does ensure that the film improves substantially as it progresses, however, and it's ultimately impossible not to connect with Hal's dogged (if futile) efforts at reinventing himself. In the end, Rocket Science would certainly seem to bode well for Blitz's future endeavors as a narrative filmmaker - assuming, of course, he's able to curb his more overtly oddball tendencies.