'Spelling the Dream': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
A winsome celebration.
6/3/2020

Sam Rega directs a Netflix documentary about Indian Americans' striking success in spelling bees.

This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was scheduled to take place last week, was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 may well have been the only force capable of preventing an Indian American competitor from winning the contest for the 13th year in a row. Americans of Indian descent make up about 1 percent of the population, but they comprise 26 of the Scripps bee's 31 most recent winners. The new documentary Spelling the Dream (Netflix) celebrates this collective accomplishment while providing some cultural explanations for Indian Americans' continued dominance in the televised tournament.

Director Sam Rega (League of Millions) follows four hopefuls for the 2017 Scripps spelling bee, ranging from age 7 to 14. (The age limit for Scripps is capped at around age 14.) What some viewers may be surprised to never encounter over the course of Spelling the Dream's 83-minute run time is a single tiger parent. Indeed, the film features many scenes of parental tenderness and supportiveness — images lacking in so many mainstream narratives about Asian American families.

And at a time when there are expensive coaches for just about every conceivable activity — up to and including cheating one's way into college via Photoshopping the heads of celebrities' children onto the bodies of legitimate student athletes — drilling for Scripps is adorably quaint. In one scene, 14-year-old Nike fiend Shourav Dasari shows off the cutting-edge tool that he's built to cram faster, a serious advantage that he might sell to other contestants when he's aged out of Scripps eligibility. That tool? A spreadsheet with every dictionary word in it.

Save for Shourav (pictured above), whose fresh-faced confidence earns him some admiring commentary from ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi, the documentary's preternaturally motivated child subjects aren't particularly compelling. (Sorry, kids!) But that's fine, since Spelling the Dream is less interested in individual contestants than a sociological understanding of one community's excellence in a niche contest made improbably interesting because of that excellence.

The cultural hypothesizing is the film's primary selling point, which Rega makes, like the rest of Spelling the Dream, substantive but zippy and accessible. The first theory tackled and dismissed by the director and his many talking heads — who include Hari Kondabolu, Fareed Zakaria and Sanjay Gupta, as well as a couple of previous winners of the Scripps bee, like Nupur Lala of the 2002 doc Spellbound — is the essentialist idea that there is some genetic component to these Indian American triumphs. Instead, they point to the unique history of Indian immigration to America, starting in 1965, when race-based immigration quotas were lifted. Subsequently, many educated and enterprising Indians moved to the U.S., where, naturally, they wanted their children to succeed like they did. The televising of the Scripps bee on ESPN, beginning in 1994, allowed some Indian American children to see a version of themselves for the first time onscreen, inspiring them to participate as well.

But the most original conjecture for the Indian American dominance at the Scripps bee — and the most convincing argument that spelling skills aren't just based on rote memorization — has more to do with the English language than Indian Americans. English happens to borrow from a great many languages. Given a word like "clafoutis," "aepyornis" and "gifblaar" to spell — all taken from the documentary — it helps enormously to know their French, Greek and South African origins, respectively, which provide a road map to their spellings. The film posits that the multiple languages that many Indians speak — and often pass on to their American-born children in some form — instills a marked fascination with language in general and extra attention to the specificities of different languages. I'm not entirely persuaded by the theory, but it's certainly intriguing.

As Negandhi notes, spelling bees are less about "this kid … versus [that] kid" than "this kid versus a dictionary of a half a million words." Given such impossible odds, the fact that the documentary focuses on a 3-year-old tournament in no way diminishes its fun. And in these troubled, terrifying times, as many of us are stuck at home simultaneously glued to, and existentially exhausted by, the news, Spelling the Dream is the kind of lighthearted but smart escapism you don't have to feel guilty about.