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'Spelling the Dream' review: Affecting documentary with admirable ambitions

Akash in Netflix's "Spelling the Dream."

Akash in Netflix's "Spelling the Dream." Credit: Netflix

DOCUMENTARY "Spelling the Dream"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Anyone needing their fix of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, can find some solace in the new documentary "Spelling the Dream," which explores the dominance of Indian-Americans in the annual contest through the prism of four contestants on their journey to the 2017 finals.

MY SAY Any movie about this topic immediately begs comparison to the quintessential "Spellbound," the Oscar nominated 2002 documentary that followed eight children competing in the 1999 finals and is referenced in "Spelling the Dream" as a piece of great inspiration for this later generation of expert spellers.

That is to say there's a familiar ring to the scenes of kids like 7-year-old Akash Vukoti, from Texas, clearing his throat and spelling pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, without missing a beat. They're charming and inspiring, but we have long since passed the moment where there is any real novelty value to a behind-the-scenes look at undeniably brilliant children spelling unfathomably difficult words.

The film offers little new insight in its depiction of the journey of Akash, or the other three subjects, through the gauntlet of competitions that culminate in the nationally broadcast finale. Even viewers who are unfamiliar with the earlier movie will have surely spent enough time watching ESPN's annual treatment of the competition that the novelty has worn off the spectacle of a boy spelling a 45-letter word, the longest in the dictionary.

Documentarian Sam Rega endeavors to differentiate the new film, which is now streaming on Netflix, from its predecessor by incorporating an overarching look at the sociological reasons Indian-American children have dominated this competition. It's an intriguing focal point, bolstered by talking head commentary from the likes of CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, past winners and other notables.

When it really works, "Spelling the Dream" showcases the joy of intellectual accomplishment. There's never a bad time for a movie that makes being smart seem as cool as dunking a basketball, or hitting a home run. 

Celebrating and demystifying this show of collective communal brainpower among the Indian-American community stands as a noble objective, and the movie paints an affecting picture of success in these competitions as indicative of the fulfillment of the promise of the U.S. and what this country represents at its best.

But it's also too weighty of a subject to be tackled in a documentary that spans a mere 82 minutes, especially when it needs to be interwoven with the stories of four contestants on the road to potential spelling glory. The conclusions sometimes veer toward the facile and simplistic, glossing over difficult questions about assimilation and the other larger forces at work.

There's simply too much to say here and not enough time allotted to say it, so everything ends up seeming shortchanged. Akash and fellow contestants Shourav Dasari, Ashrita Gandhari and Tejas Muthusamy are interesting enough to warrant far more screentime than they get, especially when their stories are also encased in a sports movie framework, with the picture culminating in the national bee.

BOTTOM LINE: There is plenty to like about "Spelling the Dream," an affecting documentary with admirable ambitions. But it tries to be a sports movie, a multicharacter study, a work of sociological inquiry and a history piece all in the span of 82 minutes. It needs a lot more time than that.

"Spelling the Dream" tries to be a sports movie, a multicharacter study, a work of sociological inquiry and a history piece all in the span of 82 minutes. It needs a lot more time than that.

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