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> Spellbound and Seabiscuit reviews
Date: 24 November, 2003
Photos: top © ThinkFilm;
above - surefish.co.uk
'All the more pertinent, surely,
but never really explored, is that a system devoted to the
survival of the fittest - be that Spelling Bee or the American
Dream - demands by definition that everyone else must fail.'
Two films, one a documentary, the
other based on a true story, show that the American Dream can be
both cruel and contradictory, says Catherine von Ruhland
Language is key in Jeff Blitz's fascinating trans-American odyssey,
Spellbound, tracking eight young people on their journey to the
National Spelling Bee finals.
Of the nine million children who entered the 1999 championships
shown in the film, only 249 qualified for the final rounds.
Admittedly, too many teeth braces and spectacles do conspire to
suggest that the competition, by definition, attracts a swotty,
geeky crowd of obsessives. However, the children featured here are
on the whole engaging, with their own reasons for competing.
Dedication is vital to reach this far but Blitz captures a range
of motivations in his Oscar-nominated debut. What emerges is an
intriguing portrait of contemporary America.
Angela's Mexican father crossed the border a quarter of a century
ago but has never learnt English; his daughter is a bright all-American
Texan who loves words.
Middle class Emily from Connecticut hints at the pressures on girls
like her to achieve. "I ride with people who are better than
me," she moans. In spelling, she's found something where she's
The mother of Ashley from Washington DC notes that the media is
only interested in their district because of gun crime and drugs.
They ignored her daughter after winning her regional heat.
Asian-American Neil is overshadowed by a father in thrall to the
American dream. "You don't get any second chances in India
the way you do in America," he declares like a real-life 'Goodness
Gracious Me' character.
To people such as him, the Spelling Bee is a multicultural opportunity
to prove how assimilated one is into American culture - and therefore
primed for success.
Which is where a shaft of amusement breaks through. Never mind the
local billboards announcing 'Congradulations! (sic)'. Hyperactive
Jewish boy Harry clearly, and understandably, doesn't know what
'banns' are; self-proclaimed 'prayer warrior' Ashley can't spell
'ecclesiastical', and, best of all, Neil - of Indian descent - looks
blank at the word 'Darjeeling'.
There is relief tinged with disappointment as one by one, the spellers
fall by the wayside. For all the types of prayer and support sent
their way, there can only after all be one winner.
One mother's comment about the National Spelling Bee being a form
of child abuse is quickly passed over. All the more pertinent, surely,
but never really explored, is that a system devoted to the survival
of the fittest - be that Spelling Bee or the American Dream - demands
by definition that everyone else must fail.
Spellbound, cert. U, directed
by Jeff Blitz
You know how this one ends: the horse wins. It's a triumph against
the odds. Made all the more amazing because it's based on true events.
The success of the washed-up horse Seabiscuit, his oversized, down-at-heel
jockey, the owner with no money, and an out-of-time cowboy trainer
was just what the USA needed during The Depression. It gave hope
to those who had lost everything: hard work, dedication, and perseverance
could win through.
The film takes a bit too much time in telling the tale. It uses
black and white news stills from the 1930s and the stiff voice-over
seemed superfluous. The main story - and it is a good one - does
not always have space to breathe.
There's a point close to the end of the film where the desire to
see both horse and its jockey put out to grass overrides having
to watch yet another race that you know they will win.
Much is made of the value of education - the half-starved Toby Maguire
has to lug a sack of books around with him. Uplifting quotes are
tossed out like they are Depression-era self-help affirmations.
Unpacked, Chris Cooper's sage "You don't throw a whole life
away just 'cos he's banged up a little," underscores the film
and recognises the God-given integrity of man and beast. A damaged
individual deserves a second chance and needs the space and love
to be their true self.
But Seabiscuit's very insistence on the validity of pulling yourself
up by your own bootstraps (if you haven't eaten them - see Charlie
Chaplin in The Gold Rush) and getting back in the saddle at all
costs ironically undermines that very message.
It's pertinent to wonder why Hollywood has produced this film now.
Certainly, this is quality cinema: beautifully shot, stirring racing
sequences and superb supporting acts including a hilarious cameo
from William H Macy.
But there's a deep insecurity at the heart of this film about the
American way of life and whether it can really go the distance when
challenged. This is post 9/11 cinema, desperate to put on a brave
face and prove a point.
Seabiscuit, cert. PG, directed by Gary
Ross, starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper