Review Date: June 23, 2004
Director: Eric Chaikin, Julian Petrillo
Producers: Eric Chaikin
A documentary that follows four guys around as they make their way to the finals of the year-end National Scrabble Championships. The film features their training rituals, their practice tournaments, their personal rapport, as well as their demons and moments of joy. Nerds ensue.
A solid documentary about the behind-the-scenes neuroses of the nation's most passionate Scrabble players, deserved of your attention, particularly if you're a fan of films that concentrate on lesser known ingredients of our society and a select few divergent individuals who are sure to retain your attention with their quirky traits, obsessive behavior and nerve-wracking focus on a board game of spelling. I've watched a lot of insightful documentaries over the past few years, and despite this one fulfilling me on most of the basic levels, I can't say that I was entirely quenched by my viewing, which might have to do with the film's short runtime of only 80-minutes or its greater focus on the "surface", rather than the stuff beneath it. The most obvious comparison to this film would be SPELLBOUND, the fascinating documentary about the lives of a handful of distinct kids going up against one another for the National Spelling Bee. That film had more individuals on its plate, but it also provided more background and emotional contact with the kids and their families. If you're expecting to receive similarly insightful background on any of the characters here...you won't find it. We do get a nice appreciation of each of the 4 particular individuals vying for the $25,000 Las Vegas prize by the end of the film, but I didn't think there was enough emphasis on their upbringings, their family lives, their girlfriends/wives' point of view, their social lives outside this obsession, etc...
The film does provide a great set-up and build-up to the eventual final meet between all of the contestants though, with many behind-the-scenes games and meetings amongst them. The filmmakers also made a great choice in the 4 people to follow for the documentary, since each of them ends up being quite competitive in the final match-up, but even more importantly, because they provide four very different perspectives on the tournament, in their preparations, game mindsets and its meaning. One thing the film does establish pretty firmly is that most of these guys are losers with little else going for them in their lives (except for last year's champion and Zen-master...who has a wife and kids) My favorite was the black dude who swore like a sailor, smoked joints after some of his games and was even shown getting himself some "Tijuana hooker action" one evening. A man's gotta relax, right? Overall, the film did a good job of providing any rookie in the game of Scrabble with a solid understanding of both the game, the obsession that drives some men to study words as they drive, others to take "smart drugs" for their brain, and the rush that many of them experience in challenging themselves in word dominance.
(c) 2016 Berge Garabedian