Spelling the Dream review – jolly look at Indian-American exceptionalism

This likeable documentary explores the success of Indian-Americans at US spelling bees, though it only goes surface deep

The profoundly American tradition of the “spelling bee” was already famously covered in documentary form in 2003’s acclaimed film Spellbound, which gave audiences a look inside this strange and inspiring world. Netflix’s Spelling the Dream tackles similar material, though this time from the perspective of the Indian-Americans who have dominated the national competition finals in recent decades.

Sam Rega’s likeable film spends time with the families of the most competitive kids in the lead up to 2017’s national finals, interspersed with talking heads of notable Indian-Americans, who outline the importance of these spelling bees within the community at large. The overall cultural analysis is rather slight, but the absurdly bright kids are very engaging to watch and the 80 minute runtime whizzes by.

With primary school-age kids defining and spelling complex words you’ve never heard of, it's the sort of documentary that can quickly make a grown adult feel inferior. Yet it's nice to see such an unabashed celebration of intellectual achievement – so often lacking in English-speaking countries – and the footage of the finals themselves is very involving.

There is an odd lack of examination of the emotional toll the competition takes on the kids, though. These are very young children, put on a national, televised stage without any sort of team in place to back them up. The confusion and devastation felt by the youngest competitors after a loss is a bit distressing. Spelling the Dream is not really looking to challenge its audience, however, but instead delivers a feelgood documentary that might just push you into broadening your own vocabulary.

Spelling the Dream is now streaming on Netflix.

Where to watch online

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