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According to the latest in Hollywood metaphysics, we live in a sham world designed to pacify and exploit us. Funny, though, how the computer-simulated universes in which action heroes struggle for liberty are so much less interesting than the little slices of reality documented in such recent nonfiction films as Stevie, Stone Reader, and Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. Now you can add to that list Spellbound, the sports movie of the year.

Director, cinematographer, and co-producer Jeff Blitz’s sharp, humane documentary observes the 1999 edition of the National Spelling Bee, one of those annual D.C. events that Washingtonians usually ignore. ESPN, perhaps trying to make some small amends for its role in coarsening American culture, actually broadcasts the competition’s final round. But the bee has nothing to do with the neo-gladiator spectacles that constitute contemporary athletic entertainments. It’s an utterly old-fashioned tournament, sponsored by the small-town and suburban newspapers of the Scripps-Howard chain and dedicated to the impressive if probably pointless mastery of the most obscure words in English, the world’s most irregular major language.

If the bee seems hopelessly retro, Spellbound shows how it has come to embody the aspirations of a new crop of Americans. The film follows eight of the 249 junior-high-age contestants who come to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for the finals, and three of them are the children of recent arrivals. California’s Neil and Florida’s Nupur are the offspring of affluent Indian immigrants who value education above all else. (Toward the end of the film, Blitz also introduces another contender of Indian descent.) At the other extreme is Angela, the daughter of a working-class, Mexico-born Texas cowherd who speaks no English.

Two of the kids are from affluent New York suburbs: self-assured but (reasonably) relaxed Emily and a hyper Jewish boy, Harry, who’s baffled by a simple but seldom-used ecclesiastical term he’s had no opportunity to encounter. (Another competitor, by the way, flubs “ecclesiastical.”) Several of the hopefuls, however, are strivers from the wrong side of some tracks: April hails from a small Pennsylvania town whose dominant industry used to be asbestos, and Ashley lives with her single mother in a D.C. housing project. (For some reason, shots of Ashley riding the Metro alone fascinate Blitz, who’s also overly enthralled by the Grand Hyatt’s Portman-goes-pomo lobby.) Angela, April, and Ashley’s dedication is poignant, even if winning the National Spelling Bee seems an outdated route to mainstream acceptance.

Spellbound has some fun with these kids’ earnestness and obsessiveness, but it doesn’t patronize them. It also goes relatively easy on the parents, most of whom are supportive but not disturbingly pushy. (Perhaps they’re as aware as the viewer that spelling bees are a mere sideshow at today’s Meritocracy Olympics.) Even Neil’s father, who’s made his kids learn French, German, Spanish, and Latin for purely orthographic purposes, doesn’t seem like a monster. (Ironically, Neil is almost sunk by a word of Indian origin.) The film’s only buffoons are the unseen adults who, with dismal regularity, put up misspelled signs hailing their local spelling champs.

Unlike the standard sports flick, Spellbound doesn’t pit the worthy underdog against the haughty favorite. All of the spellers who make it to the last round are manifestly deserving. Still, the sudden-death rules—one wrong letter and you’re out—and Yana Gorskaya’s taut editing render the final showdown gripping. Ultimately, there are many winners, including the English language, genuine family values, and smart kids everywhere.

What’s the sound of young America in pain? Apparently, it’s finger-picking alt-country doodles. Or maybe that’s the sound of American film critics in pain, presented with the second low-budget movie in two months that features David Wingo’s lackadaisical guitar and Zooey Deschanel as a troubled teen. Unlike All the Real Girls, which was set in a North Carolina hamlet, Manic transpires in the under-18 ward of a California mental institution. The level of emotional maturity is similar, however, although Manic does include a token adult: staff psychologist David (Don Cheadle), who leads the kids’ group-therapy sessions and watches indulgently when Sleater-Kinney, Rage Against the Machine, and some marijuana inspire an outbreak of moshing.

The movie’s central character is Lyle (Third Rock From the Sun’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s committed after his adolescent rage takes a near-homicidal turn. Shove for shove, Lyle is matched by Mike (Elden Henson), a hulking white kid whose dialogue is constructed primarily from the antisocial commonplaces of gangsta rap. Although Lyle is potentially dangerous, director Jordan Melamed and writers Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver waste no time in establishing that he’s basically good: Though Mike bullies Kenny (Cody Lightning), a withdrawn American-Indian boy traumatized by sexual abuse, Lyle befriends him. Lyle also becomes protective of sensitive rape victim Tracy (Deschanel), who says little in therapy but screams in her sleep. Lyle makes improbable plans to go to Amsterdam with Chad (co-scripter Bacall), who’s set to be released—and get control of a trust fund—upon his imminent 18th birthday. But of course Lyle will soon realize that his place is with his new institutionalized friends.

At first, Lyle seems a more problematic protagonist than the Winona Ryder character in Girl, Interrupted, who was a trifle suicidal but hardly murderous. Yet the two movies—and many more like them—are linked by the fact that none of their central characters are simply, inexplicably insane. They’re all victims of society, and thus both sympathetic and potentially understandable. Real madness would make for a far messier film than Manic, which includes such TV-movie clichés as an ex-smoker’s solace in a forbidden cigarette and a patient’s convenient discovery of a set of keys. (Showtime has actually bought the rights to make a series based on Manic.)

Melamed and cinematographer Nick Hay try to mask the film’s conventionality with an unruly appearance. Shot with digital video, Manic employs wayward handheld camera, unsettlingly tight closeups, and harshly lighted hot spots. But only someone who’s missed the last five years of indie cinema would mistake the movie—which has been gathering dust since premiering at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival—for a documentary. Gordon-Levitt is convincingly tempestuous, Deschanel believably lost, and Cheadle credibly benign, but the film they’re in always seems contrived. CP