Spelling The Dream Netflix Documentary film review

★★

Directed by #SamRega

Written by #SamRega, #ChrisWeller

Starring #SrinivasAyyagari, #JacquesBailly, #ValerieBrowning

Film Review by Lawrence Bennie


Spelling The Dream begins with a remarkable fact. Indian-Americans represent around 1% of the United States population, yet the winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the last 12 years have been Indian-American. Furthermore, 26 of the last 31 winners have been Indian-American. That's certainly some achievement!

Sam Rega’s insightful documentary explores the success of Indian-Americans in the nation’s flagship spelling competition. Shouray (14), Ashrita (10) and Telas (14) are three of the spelling sensations we meet, along with their families, as they prepare for another year of word wars.

Interestingly, the rise in Indian-American success at the Bee has also coincided with its emergence from home-spun American tradition to a mainstream media fixture. From 1994, ESPN began to broadcast the competition. Jeffrey Blitz’s Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound (2002) helped to bring the Spelling Bee to a global audience, whilst Akeelah and the Bee (starring Laurence Fishburne) then followed in 2006. In 2019, 8 contestants were crowned co-champions when no words were left to challenge them. Consequently, as well as battling the dictionary, the kids are in the spotlight. Super-spellers become young celebs.

Remarkably though, as well as their wizardry with words, all the children in Rega’s film seem to take the intense press and publicity in their stride. Akash Vukoti is not only a 7 year-old spelling sage but also a zany young comedian, whilst George Thampy’s recipe for success is amusingly admirable. “One, trust in Jesus. Trust and believe in Jesus. Two, honouring your parents. And three, hard work. Comedian Hari Kondabolu loves Thampy’s no-nonsense approach. “He trusted Jesus all the way to first place”.

Expectedly, Rega’s film is concerned with demystifying some assumptions around the success of Indian-Americans at the competition. Of course, success at the Bee is really the result of months, even years, of hard-work, not simply the result of some unique genetic disposition. Tejas himself is clear on what really lies behind the success of Spelling Bee winners:


“What you see time and time again is that people who have more or less devoted their whole lives to spelling become Spelling Bee champions. And, I think, that really is a testament to the benefits of hard work”.

Secondly, there's the misconception that the students are the products of pushy “tiger parents”. In fact, Sociologist Pawan Dhingra presents us with the simple reality. “The kids don’t stick with it, unless they like it and the parents don’t force their kids to become spellers unless the kids find some internal drive for it”.

If there’s something more than evident throughout Rega’s documentary, then it's the sheer determination, resilience and incredible effort of these young people in chasing their dream to become Spelling Bee champions. It's the perfect American success story, whatever the year, whoever the winner. Towards the end of the film, Journalist Fareed Zakaria perhaps best sums up the significance of their success at the Bee:

"Here are kids who really come from a very different world and culture in their historical and cultural origins and they are taking part in the most American tradition, doing well at it, playing by their rules. If that's not American assimilation at work, I don't know what is".

#LawrenceBennie