Only one of the eight young people profiled will win the top prize in the 1999 National Spelling Bee, but, truly, every one is a winner in Jeff Blitz's wonderful documentary Spellbound. Ashley lives in a Washington, D.C., housing project. Harry, from Glen Rock, N.J., is a hot-wired bundle of jokes and twitches. Angela's Mexican-born father, a ranch hand in Texas, speaks no English. Neil's Indian-born father has paid 1,000 people back home to chant for his son's success. (Neil's sister was a finalist at a previous national bee.)
Clearly Blitz chose his young subjects (out of the 249 finalists who made it to the Big Game) with a showman's feel for embodying American diversity in the strivings of orthographically agile young people; on-camera poise helps too. But ''Spellbound'''s dramatic and emotional intensity isn't built on melting-pot niceties. Although personality, study habits, and offstage parents help shape each kid's moment in the spotlight, staring down the threat of the dreaded elimination bell (the vanquished are led to a ''comfort room''), the documentarian keeps his story rooted in battle and suspense, and we cheer wholeheartedly for every nervous warrior. Each is no less than a small gladiator in this thrilling little epic set in the bewildering arena of the English language.