Real life imitates Christopher Guest in Jeff Blitzís brilliant documentary Spellbound, an account of the agony and the ecstasy of eight diverse adolescent contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee. If for no other reason, Blitz should get high grades for his selection of participants, who represent a comprehensive range of races, classes, and geographical areas. Although it draws on the expectations associated with each particular group, like a Guest film at its best, Spellbound transcends prejudices and clichés through comic eccentricity.
Ted from Missouri is a big, slow-talking loner whose older brother has a thing for explosives; you hope heíll win because you donít want to see him featured in a sequel to Bowling for Columbine. Aprilís parents, as she remarks, seem based on the Bunkers in All in the Family: dad, who runs the Easy Street Tavern in Ambler, Pennsylvania, remarks that his life hasnít been a real success story, and mom wants everyone to "bee happy." Meanwhile, the tiny family dog steals the show by licking momís leg.
Taking the Parker Posey role is Emily from Connecticut, who has no love for spelling but does it because itís something sheís better at than anyone else, unlike riding or singing. And Neilís parents bring in French- and German-language coaches in addition to drilling him relentlessly on the computer; in his dazed expression you can read the fear that he will never have a girlfriend.
All the film needs is for Fred Willard to show up, but Spellbound offers instead something Guest canít ó the pathos, dignity, and hilarity of real human beings. Angela is the daughter of a Mexican-American rancher: her mastery of the language is for her dad a vindication of the familyís desperate, illegal flight to this country a dozen years before. Ashley has risen from the DC inner city to compete with the more privileged; sheís sustained by the knowledge that disappointment can only make her stronger. Far more than a oddball bit of Americana, the Spelling Bee is a microcosm of the American Dream, and Spellbound is a miniature portrait of America in all its diversity, absurdity, and triumph.
The pissed-off, psycho-ward kids in Manic could learn a thing or two from their peers in Spellbound about directing their energy into something constructive. Likewise, Manicís director, Jordan Melamed, could take a tip from Jeff Blitz about avoiding stereotypes and platitudes. One might have hoped from its lurid title that the film would at least aspire to the grand exploitation of such classics of the nuthouse genre as The Snake Pit and Samuel Fullerís Shock Corridor. Instead, Melamed takes the earnest, tastefully exploitative route.
Lyle, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looks like a skinhead Timothy Hutton from Ordinary People. Bruised and sedated after bashing a tormentor with a baseball bat, heís introduced into the adolescent acute unit of a psychiatric unit. Itís a junior cuckooís nest, with Lyle a mini-McMurphy, his damaged Native American roommate Kenny (Cody Lightning) a cross between Chief Broom and Billy Bibbit, and therapist Dave (Don Cheadle) a mellower version of Big Nurse offering tough love and insights like "Lifeís a struggle" in addition to the doses of meds. Whatís more, itís a co-ed ward, so Lyle gets to make inarticulate overtures to fellow inmate Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), whoís in for "low self-esteem." And for those tough questions that really trouble a guy, like the meaning of it all and his favorite mosh-pit moment, thereís manic-depressive Chad (co-screenwriter Michael Bacall), a suicide risk with a trust fund.
But for the most part, Lyle knocks things over, punches walls, cuts himself, and engages in mumbling dialogue. The mumbling is a key element of Manic: along with the darting, pseudo-vérité digital photography, it disguises the pictureís clichés. It canít, however, hide what Chad points out in a rare moment of clarity: "Mediocrity sucks."