The National Spelling Bee has always had a Spirit of America aura that I find slightly obnoxious; knowing how to spell baroquely difficult words, after all, isn’t automatically high proof of good citizenship. But, as Jeff Blitz’s entertaining documentary Spellbound shows, it’s undeniable that a disproportionate number of Spelling Bee finalists are from first-generation immigrant families who regard good spelling as the passport to the good life. Blitz chose eight boys and girls from widely disparate backgrounds, all of whom compete for the top prize. Some of the kids—like Angela, whose parents are Mexican immigrants speaking almost no English, or Ashley, the black daughter of a single mother in the D.C. projects, or Ted, who grew up in rural Missouri in his family’s double-wide trailer—are almost too perfectly cast as contestants. And yet their stories are real, and so is their valor. They’re thrilled and a bit awed by their success, and they seem genuine in wishing each other well. Blitz interviews the kids in a free-form way that disarms them and brings out their blithe eccentricities. (One boy, Harry, is a geeky sprite who cracks up at his own jokes; when it comes time for him to spell cephalagia, you really pull for him to ace it.) The parents, for the most part, come across more conventionally, but perhaps mention should be made of the father of Neil, who lives with his parents and sister in upscale San Clemente, California. This guy drills his son for the championship by hiring spelling coaches and running through computer programs of words given to past winners—he even tries to organize prayer circles for his boy back in India, with promises of payback should he win. He’s as annoying as any stage parent could ever be, and although I feel duty-bound not to reveal the winner here, let’s just say that prayer does not always work miracles. (1 hr. 37 mins.; NR) — PETER RAINER

Opens April 30
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