The 2002 documentary Spellbound, which chronicled the quests of eight kids competing in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, was one of the rare documentaries to capture the hearts of critics, moviegoers, and Oscar voters. Eighteen years later, the new Netflix documentary Spelling the Dream showcases a new generation of spellers, one comprised chiefly of one particular group: Indian Americans.
Prior to Nupur Lala winning the 1999 Bee, competitors of South Asian descent had won only two of the previous 71 competitions. Since that time, they have become the dominant force, winning 15 more times, including the last 12 years in a row (Erin Howard shared the 2019 title with seven other competitors, all Indian Americans). The film explores the hows and the whys of group’s supremacy, and it’s not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.
Much like Spellbound, Spelling the Dream goes into detail about the journeys of four children on their way to the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee. However, the film complements their stories with interviews featuring a variety of prominent Indian Americans, including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, journalist Fareed Zakaria, comedian Hari Kondabolu, and more.
Directed by Sam Rega, the film shows how Indian Americans have continued to draw inspiration by the group’s growing success, including earlier wins by 1985 champion Balu Natarajan and 1988 champion Rageshree Ramachandran. The four kids featured differ in age, but they all share a love of learning, a dedication necessary to spelling thousands of words correctly, and families who guide, but never push, them toward success.
Rega and his team do a wonderful job at drawing out the personalities of the spellers, showing their home lives and their different preparations for the competition. This is especially true in the case of Akash Vukoti, who became the first-ever first grader to qualify for the Bee in 2016. When Akash demonstrates his ability to correctly spell a 45-letter word, he does so with highly entertaining hand flourishes embellished with on-screen graphics that make it clear what an impressive feat it is.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees the Indian American dominance as a good thing, and the film takes care to address the racist backlash that has come with so many members of the group winning the competition. But the supportiveness and camaraderie shown within the spelling bee community is a good indication that more people appreciate these kids’ talents than care about what they look like or where they come from.
The film gets competition-heavy toward the end, which is to be expected, but consequently that section lacks the insight of the rest of the film. Still, watching each kid tackle supremely difficult words with ease never ceases to astonish, and it’s a nice replacement for this year’s competition, which was canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Spelling the Dream makes the case that, due to their upbringing and other factors, Indian Americans know the value of hard work and what will come because of it. There is rarely anything more inspiring than that.
Spelling the Dream is streaming now on Netflix.