When brainstorming movie ideas, “raunch comedy” and “spelling bee” are not two things that one would expect to come together. And yet it’s exactly that combination that landed the script for Bad Words on the Blacklist. And now a film of that script, directed by and starring Justin Bateman, is hitting theaters. Unfortunately, the film is of the variety of comedy that mistakes shock value for quality humor, and it’s mostly insufferable as a result. If there’s a cinematic spelling bee itch that you must scratch, look no further than Spellbound.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz and his crew followed eight kids as they prepared for and later competed in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. It turns out that spelling is much more than just memorizing words. These contestants dive into whole histories of languages and get to understand English in and out. There’s a reason they’ll ask for a word’s language of origin or definition if they’re stumped — such information can help them intuit how to spell it. The amount of studying it takes to master this, on top of already above-average course loads (these are all honors students, of course), builds a not-inconsiderable amount of pressure on the kids.
That pressure is intensified by the spotlight. As one parent points out, in most games or sports if you make a mistake there’s usually something that can be done to rectify it. Here, a single screwup will stop dead your participation. There’s a remarkable tension in watching the characters at play. Every letter said aloud winds the wire tighter. And the movie does a great job of investing the viewer’s sympathies in all of the kids. There are no heroes or villains here.
That is what most obviously sets Spellbound apart from Bad Words. Spellbound is a film generous in spirit and equanimity, while Bad Words spits nastiness at every opportunity. There is room for both modes, of course, but whether it works is a matter of execution. Spellbound makes the audience feel its characters’ triumphs and failures, whereas Bad Words estranges the audience with bland vulgarity.
It also helps that the people featured in the documentary are much more interesting than those in the fiction film. The kids are set apart by various quirks of background, family, career aspirations, studying methods and behaviors. The most memorable is undoubtedly Harry Altman, who pulls an incredible array of weird faces as he grapples with each word he’s given. And that’s just the surface of his colorfulness. Bateman’s character in Bad Words, who intimidates his middle and elementary school opponents with vicious jokes about fatness and menstruation, would have a field day with a kid like Harry. But Spellbound never mocks him.
Spellbound, which received an Oscar nomination, was one of the first movies of the renaissance in documentary filmmaking that came about at the turn of this century. Thanks to video technology, it was made on the cheap, and it shows, but that doesn’t matter for a second. It’s heart is greater than its budget, and it makes the viewer empathize with that heart, which is all that matters. Bad Words has no heart.