Like “Spellbound” and “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Spelling The Dream” is about kids trying to get to the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The difference is that this documentary focuses on children of immigrants from India. Kids of that background have won the national bee for the last twelve years — except for 2019, when the organizers had to declare an eight-way tie for first place because they had used up all the dictionary words they had. And of those eight (pictured above), seven were Indian-American.
Director Sam Rega wanted to figure out how South Asians have become so good at spelling, so he embedded with several of them as they studied and prepared for their local and regional bees before advancing to the national stage in Washington, DC. The kids range from seven-year-old (!) Akash to a few 14-year-olds in their last year of eligibility. Rega not only captures the children, but also their parents, who encourage them all the way, helping them study and ensuring they have the tools they need.
For insight into why their culture produces so many children who can spell so well, Rega includes interviews with notable Indian-American personalities, including CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria, comedian Hari Kondabolu, and previous Scripps winner Dr. Balu Natarajan. But none of them can beat the precociousness of Akash as he rolls off the 45 letters that spell pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis and comments, “I bet that filled up your entire screen!” It did. If only WordPress could squeeze it into one line so it doesn’t have to be broken up.
I was thoroughly caught up in the hard work, joy, and tension each time a kid stepped up to the microphone, desperately hoping not to hear the ding of the bell that indicated they got a word wrong. Like its predecessors, both fictional and documentary, “Spelling The Dream” (now streaming on Netflix) offers a good example of the power of education, determination, and assimilation unlike anything you’ll see this year.
I give it an 8.5 out of 10.