‘Spelling the Dream’ is an inspirational but thin look at Indian-American Scripps spelling bee competitors.
Kernel Rating: 3 out of 5
MPAA Rating: TV-G Length: 82 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 8+. This documentary about the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the role of the Indian-American community in the competition aims for an inspirational tone in how it follows various children and teenagers preparing for the tournament. Nothing objectionable here; there are some emotional moments when students miss a word and are understandably upset at being eliminated from the competition, but otherwise the tone is very upbeat throughout.
By Roxana Hadadi
As a challenge open to all children around the United States, and further popularized because of the focus it receives from ESPN and countless media outlets, the Scripps National Spelling Bee captivates millions every year. And increasingly since the 1980s, the Indian-American community has dominated in the competition, with an Indian-American competitor being crowd the winner for the past 12 years. “Spelling the Dream” follows four Indian-American students preparing for the 2017 competition, giving us a glimpse into the hours of preparation and the support they receive from their families, while also featuring prominent Indian-Americans like comedian Hari Kondabolu, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, and past Scripps winners and competitors.
The result is an illuminating, if sometimes thin, portrait of a community that has been phenomenally successful in this realm. The featured children are mostly charming. Their rigorous training is impressive. And the commentary provided by figures like Kondabolu, Gupta, Zakaria, and more provides some context about the Indian-American community, about the spelling-bee networks they have set up to strategize and work toward Scripps together, and the importance of diverse representation on a sports network like ESPN.
The film begins in May 2019, in the 19th round of competition, when nine contestants are heading into the 20th round of competition. By the end of this final round, eight of the nine will have been name co-champions, and of those elite eight, seven are Indian-American. (The 2020 championship, the 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee, was canceled because of COVID-19.) After highlighting the unprecedented nature of eight champions being crowned after 8.5 hours of competition, “Spelling the Dream” goes backward to focus on four tweens and teens preparing for the 2017 competition.
How did the Indian-American community, which only comprises 1% of the U.S. population, come to dominate the Scripps tournament so fully? “Spelling the Dream” attempts to explain that phenomena while also trailing 7-year-old Akash, a media darling and motor-mouthed whiz kid; the teen Shourav, whose friends call him the Michael Jordan of spelling and whose parents think he has a 99% chance of winning the championship; the only girl featured, fourth-grader Ashrita, who is serious about her studying but also makes time for piano, dance, and other hobbies; and 14-year-old Tejas, whose extended family in India speak about what an inspiration he is to his younger cousins.
They study with their parents; they learn thousands and thousands of root words; and they consult gigantic databases and spreadsheets that compile word origins, definitions, and pronunciations. “Spelling the Dream” spends time with their families, in their homes, and at the various regional tournaments they need to win to make it to Scripps. There are moments of unintended humor here, like when 10-year-old Ashrita says of spelling, “It started a really long time ago, when I was about 5,” but for the most part, “Spelling the Dream” skimps on showing these children as anything but energetic and committed. Do they feel overwhelmed? Does all the preparation get tiring? How do they feel about being such elite competitors? “
A kid who was born here in America should do a lot more,” Akash’s father says of his and his wife’s expectations for their children, but “Spelling the Dream” doesn’t pose that same question to the children. As a viewing experience, then, “Spelling the Dream” properly honors these children’s achievements and makes very clear how attainable this can be if you really commit yourself to it. But because we don’t know much about the contestants’ internal lives, or their various fears or concerns, there is a bit of distance between us as viewers and them as our focus.
On the one hand, “Spelling the Dream” is mostly charming, and a well-intentioned portrait of the Indian-American community and students who have reached unparalleled levels of success at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But on the other hand, how the movie steps aside from more inward-looking questions, and instead emphasizes Indian-American success as a positive demonstration of American assimilation, comes close to the “model minority” stereotype. It’s a delicate line that “Spelling the Dream” has to walk, and some more interiority might have benefited the documentary by taking it deeper, into something more powerful. As it is, though, “Spelling the Dream” is exciting and informative, and might inspire younger viewers into working on their own path toward Scripps.
“Spelling the Dream” is streaming on Netflix as of June 3, 2020.