Since the late ’90s, young Indian Americans have dominated the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee, which offers a competitive spelling stage each spring to hundreds of bright young minds, all 14 and younger. Over the years, the bee has broken into mainstream consciousness, thanks to wild winner stories (in 2019, the bee awarded top honors to eight contestants) and a growing interest in its competitive nature (since 1994, ESPN has televised its later rounds into millions of homes). In 2002, Jeffrey Blitz’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound” meticulously chronicled all the drama of the 1999 competition, unknowingly setting the stage for its inspiring followup, Sam Rega’s “Spelling the Dream.”
Anyone who has watched “Spellbound” — and that seems to include all of the central players in Rega’s film — surely remembers that year’s ultimate winner, Nupur Lala, whose big win (her final word was “logorrhea,” and you better believe genuinely thrilling footage of it is shown in Rega’s film) unknowingly kicked off years of Indian American dominance at the annual event. Lala, who pops up as one of the doc’s many compelling talking heads (all of whom are of Indian descent and offer important perspective), didn’t intend to change the course of the bee, but her story, one built on the joys of belonging and succeeding, is emblematic of the best parts of it.
It’s also emblematic of the best parts of the American dream, a thread that runs through a rousing documentary that’s equal parts inspiring, entertaining, and educational. While Rega and his talking heads — including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria, and Hari Kondabolu — only briefly grapple with overt racist backlash to the bee’s biggest stars, “Spelling the Dream” is about what happens when immigrants are welcomed into a country that values letting them shine.
It’s a message more important than ever, and one that cleverly frames the zippy action of the film. And, yes, spelling bees can be action-packed. Rega’s smart use of on-screen graphics to track each speller’s letters is surprisingly effective at pumping up the drama: Which letter will trip them up? will any?
While “Spelling the Dream” attempts to address the question of why Indian American kids are such spelling stars, it also gracefully moves away from that sort of monolithic thinking by introducing its four central subjects, plus various talking heads, on their own terms. Yes, Indian American kids are spelling champs, and yes, this documentary is focused on that supposed phenomenon, but “Spelling the Dream” is perhaps most successful at showing how each speller is very different.
“Spelling the Dream” pays close attention to how each family’s story shaped their kiddie competitors — all are immigrants who came to America in search of greater opportunity — and finds similarities and differences that offer a wider perspective on what breeds success. The documentary may be about the rise of Indian American bee winners, but it’s also an unexpected rallying cry about the need to foster and support all sorts of citizens, a melting pot of strivers who can truly make a country great.
They’re all quite worthy of celebration. Akash is the youngest and is extremely precocious (the late-breaking revelation that he also found some success on “Dancing With the Stars” is an amusing, if totally understandable aside). Confident Shourav is billed by his friends as being the “Michael Jordan of spelling,” while Ashrita is more restrained in her tone, but just as pleased by the positive reactions her ability inspires in her pals. Tejas is nearing the end of his spelling run, but his skill with words only seems to be the tip of his academic inclinations.
Clocking in under 90 minutes, Rega’s slickly made film strives to cover a wealth of topics, not just the question of Indian American bee domination, but also wider myths about immigrants and even a heart-pounding race to the conclusion of the 2017 Scripps competition. The filmmaker finds time to explore most of its bigger questions in depth, offering insight into each subject (with plenty of attention paid to their families, including frequent chats with both their nuclear clans and far-flung relatives, who burst with pride over their little spellers), although each could anchor their own film.
Still, the film balks just shy of engaging with the racist rhetoric that has occasionally plagued the bee’s winners in recent years. While “Spelling the Dream” offers up examples of tired racist talking points that take aim at the kids’ cultural background and if they “belong” in such a competition (heads up: all of them are Americans and, oh yeah, Scripps isn’t just for Americans anyway) by way of disgusting social media hits, the film isn’t especially eager to dig deeper into them. And hell, maybe it shouldn’t, instead letting both the film and its winning subjects exist on their own merits. After all, isn’t that the real American dream?
“Spelling the Dream” is available to stream on Netflix today, Wednesday, June 2.