Cinemax documentary casts a spell

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Films don't come much sweeter or more inspiring than "Spellbound" (7 p.m., Cinemax), the Oscar-nominated 2002 documentary about the long road to the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. "Spellbound" offers mini profiles of eight contestants who couldn't be from more diverse backgrounds.

It's hard not to root for Angela from the Texas panhandle. Her stoic father, a Mexican-American who illegally crossed the Rio Grande 20 years before, is moved to tears when she makes it past 54 rounds of competition. He says he can die happy because his American dream has been fulfilled.

Other kids include Ted, a lonely boy from Rolla, Mo.; Ashley, a resident of the Washington, D.C., projects; a polo-playing Connecticut lass named Emily; Tampa, Fla.'s, violin-playing Napur; Neil of San Clemente; a nervous boy from Passaic, N.J., named Harry; and April, who describes her blue-collar Pennsylvania parents as "Edith and Archie Bunker." April's dad took over a corner bar when the town's asbestos plant was shut down and her proud, hovering mother seems to have taken fashion tips from "Tootsie."

No scriptwriter could invent characters as offbeat, loveable and original.

Viewers who have lost their faith in America as a vibrant melting pot should not miss "Spellbound." Each of these finalists is remarkably focused and driven, and prepare in their own unique way to battle over impossibly difficult words. In addition to the 1999 contestants, "Spellbound" features brief glimpses at past winners, including the very first national spelling champion, who recalls moving his own father to tears way back in 1925.

Even if you can't spell "cephalagia," "Spellbound" will steal your heart.

Tonight's other highlights

Late night

Barbara Walters, the last "Survivor" and Michael McDonald appear on "Late Show with David Letterman" (10:35 p.m., CBS) ... Jay Leno welcomes David Arquette and Train on "The Tonight Show" (10:35 p.m., NBC).

Kelly Ripa and John Stamos are booked on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (11:35 p.m., NBC) ... Tom Jones, Elisha Cuthbert and Mitch Albom are on "The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn" (12:37 p.m., CBS).