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Date: 24 November, 2003

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'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 best.

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

Seabiscuit

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