The definition of a crowd-pleaser, Bee Nation (Sunday, CBC, 9pm) revolves around an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: The First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition, the first ever for Saskatchewan’s aboriginal communities.
It’s Documentary 101: Director Lana Slezic pics a handful of kids from the Kahkewistahaw reserve in SK and shows their lives and their preparation for the event. The spelling bee pool consists of 4,000 words and there is no standard training, and the level of parental support fluctuates wildly.
The approach allows some distressing information to seep through, like the fact schools in reserves receive considerable less money per student, forcing administrators to make some hard decisions regarding their institutions’ curriculum.
The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, but each has a personality of their own: Mikayla is your traditional good student; For William, the sole idea of failure is devastating; The bullied Savannah is a model of personal drive. In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve.
Heartbreak is unavoidable for the scrappy underdogs (the winners of the provincial chapter get to travel to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but makes for great cinema. It’s hard not to root for these kids or share the excitement of their first flight.
Bee Nation feels a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs POV banner and it shows), but the power of the story overtakes the format.