In an age when the only documentaries that seem to get any traction are true crime stories which adhere to a ‘bloodier the better’ mentality, it is a breath of fresh air to watch one where the first word you would use to describe it is wholesome. Over the last few years, Netflix has become a home to high-quality documentary filmmaking and Sam Rega’s Spelling the Dream is another in what is becoming a long list. Admonishing not only a society that sees its subject matter as troublesome while also highlighting a not so subtle change in American politics, but this is also more than a documentary about an annual spelling bee and the fun these kids have doing something they love. What really makes it brim-full of joy is the innocence of learning and the pride that comes from something as simple as spelling.
Following the lives of four Indian-American families as the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee fast approaches, Spelling the Dream is an exploration of the evolution of a community of Indian-Americans who since 1985 have embraced the Spelling Bee world, not only as an activity for their kids but also as a little part of America they can call their own. Buried beneath the statistics of how many kids from Indian-American families have taken to the sport, is a message to a country quickly growing suspect of the encroachment of immigrants. This isn’t a story about immigrants, this is a story about Americans, the kind of Americans that still aspire to the antiquated positives of an American dream corrupted by entitlement.
Snippets of Lydon Baines Johnson announcing changes to immigration law in 1965 not only highlight a step backwards for a country made by immigrants but also the intelligence and strength this Indian-American community exude not just in coming thousands of miles but enduring a changing landscape that has brought with it hostility and assumptions. This isn’t the criminal story of helicopter parents and toxic families but one of American idealism and a group of people succeeding by embracing the elements of a country where education has since become a vice.
In fact the biggest shock here, for anyone outside of this Indian-American community is how this sport, one of extreme preparedness and hours of revision, is displayed as something so unbelievably fun. The notion of sitting down and reading the dictionary or learning some obscure word just because I want to seems alien to me but here it is something that is not only enlightening but also a family activity, a bonding exercise that brings out the best in people. In a world where more often than not parents are pushing their kids to a set career plan or university, this level of support is staggering.
At a breezy 82 minutes, Rega’s documentary never overstays its welcome, spending just the right amount of time setting up the lives of prospective Bee champions including quiet but confident Tejas, sure of himself 14-year-old Shourav, shy but persistent 10-year-old Ashrita, all the way to precocious 7-year-old Akash, their vastly different kids all brought together by a sense of pride and enjoyment from an activity that more often than not ends in failure than success. The fact that they keep coming back to it is a testament to their appreciation but also to the ideals instilled by their idealistic and optimistic parents who use their pasts and those of their own parents to paint their own heritage into the picture as well.
While to some Spelling the Dream might seem like a light-hearted documentary about Spelling Bees, one intent on being a good time more than a dramatic discussion of American values, it also uses an under-explored section of society to really look at how the idea of America has evolved and how there is still a place for hope when it comes to family life and the future, especially when it comes to the woes of modern education and I think in that regard, it might be one of the more important documentaries to see this year.