Netflix’s new documentary Spelling the Dream couches itself as an exploration of the spate of Indian-American winners at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee—which is indeed a remarkable, noteworthy run. South Asian kids have won the event for the past twelve years straight (and 26 of the past 31 years), including the 2019 Bee, in which 7 of the 8 co-champions were of Indian descent. It’s a fascinating story to be sure, and writer-director Sam Rega has put together a charming and fun look at a handful of youngsters who have made spelling their life. That means, though, that the film never digs as deep as it could and instead winds up as more of a breezy biopic than any kind of probing, insightful film.
Made up of equal parts interviews with famous Indian-Americans—including ESPN’s Kevin Nagandhi and CNN mainstays Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria—and in-home visits with contenders for the 2017 crown, Spelling the Dream certainly covers all its bases. Comedian Hari Kondabolu even offers a humorous commentary on the phenomenon, accurately referring to the Spelling Bee “the Indian Super Bowl”. It’s only when the documentary attempts to actually answer the underlying question of why Indian-Americans have dominated the Bee that it begins to trip on itself.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that there’s no way to pinpoint one specific reason why one particular race has ruled the spelling roost in recent years. Credit Raga and his subjects for offering up no shortage of theories (including intense practice, multilingualism, and the ripple effect), but about halfway through the film, it’s as though he decides, “Hey, we can’t figure this out. Let’s just enjoy some time with these brilliant kids.”
And brilliant they are, including the scene-stealer of the documentary, Akash Vukoti, who was, at the time of filming, only a first-grader (and went on to become the youngest ever to qualify for the Bee). Hearing him tear through words like humuhumunukunukuapua’a—the state fish of Hawaii—is an amazing thing to behold. Other competitors, including the “Michael Jordan of Spelling”, Shourav Dasari, offer a little insight (it’s hard to explain why you’re good at something, when it’s all you’ve ever known) and even reveal a few tips for succeeding at the Bee. The takeaway lesson, though, is little more than “practice, practice, practice”.
Even when Raga attempts to dive deep and bring up thornier topics such as xenophobia, it’s only with the most cursory of glances. Even the topic of racism is touched on, but only for one minute of the film’s 82-minute runtime, making it seem like Raga was content (and arguably justified, given the young age of the subjects at the center of the film) to just skip the heavy stuff and give us a nice, sweet, Disney-fied look at a handful of kids who know how to spell really well. There’s absolutely a solid, penetrating documentary somewhere on a cutting room floor, but this one can, unfortunately, be chalked up as a missed O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y.