Word Wars (2004)
Directed by Eric Chaikin & Julian Petrillo

It's tough not to contrast Word Wars, a documentary focusing on competitive Scrabble, to 2002's Spellbound, which followed a group of schoolkids on their way to the National Spelling Bee. But "professional Scrabble" is a much different beast, than uh, "professional Spelling" (eh?), as the mind-talents required for Scrabble have no particular practical application in the real world. The funniest thing is that most top Scrabblists – my own awkward term, mind you – are often the first ones to point this out.

The Word Wars crew follows around four highly-ranked players for nine months prior to the annual Grand Tournament in San Diego, all the while revealing their bundles of idiosyncracies – acid reflux misery, endless internal excuses, overreliance on brain vitamins and/or weed, etc. – and ultimately helps us past the inherent craziness to latch onto the more endearing qualities of these characters, or at least the majority of them.

I seem to know way too many of these brainfreaks personally … whether or not it's actually Asperger's that causes these nerds to be non-personable fatsos or socially miserable friends is beyond me – so the movie gets all the more props for attempting any sort of empathic connection.

The movie has an incredibly winning flow, leading the audience from impromptu Scrabble games in Washington Park, to local competitions, to players' living rooms and hotel rooms, where games are often played with enrapt fellow players analyzing every move and anagramming every tile-set. Fortunately, Word Wars doesn't dare use sentences as long-winded and wordy as the last one.

The players are all intensely set on beating three-time National Champion Joe Edley, and more honestly, on nabbing the $25,000 grand prize, needed by many of them, as they gave up their day-jobs long ago and fell down the dark, obsessive rabbit hole that is competitive Scrabble. Especially amazing is an ending scene from the Tournament which unfolds nearly as majestically as Alan Arbus's stigmata act from Greaser's Palace, forcing you not to root for one of the leads.

I knew I'd like the film, being a huge fan of Spellbound (and pretty much any movie that addresses the confluence of brilliance and obsessiveness), but I was surprised to come away loving it. Just a fantastic piece of cinema. Along with the equally surprising Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Word Wars is an unexpected contender for movie of the year. Triple Word Score all around.

Review by Sergio Refresco