Determined to prove himself, Charlie Brown enters the school spelling bee and emerges victorious. By winning he becomes the area representative for the National Elimination Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Before his departure he confides to Linus, "There's a good chance that instead of being a hero I'll make a bigger fool of myself than ever." Somewhat unhelpfully, Linus responds, "Don't be discouraged, Charlie Brown. You have nothing to lose. You'll either be a hero or a goat."
Up to this point, A Boy Named Charlie Brown has largely followed a familiar pattern: The protagonist defies his doubters, improbably qualifies for a major competition, and now needs only to channel his inner strength to triumph. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Lucy will soon disavow her initial skepticism and tell Charlie Brown at a crucial point in the competition that he's always had what it takes to win.
But that's not what happens. Instead, Charlie Brown survives to the final round (his words include unconfident, disastrous, and incompetent), and then carelessly misspells the word "beagle" while his dog Snoopy points at himself from the front row. Afterward, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy depart the theater in silence. When they're dropped off at the bus station that night, the streets are empty. "I guess nobody realized that we were returning," Linus remarks. The movie then spends an excruciating amount of time on Charlie Brown wordlessly unpacking, changing into his pajamas, and slipping beneath the covers, his eyes glazed with utter defeat.
When Charlie Brown doesn't show up for school that next day, Linus stops by his house. Still in bed with the shades pulled down, Charlie Brown tells Linus that he's never going to attempt anything again. Rather than trying again to build up Charlie Brown's self-esteem, Linus waxes philosophical: "Well, I can understand how you feel. You worked hard studying for the spelling bee, and I suppose you feel you let everyone down and you made a fool out of yourself and everything. But did you notice something, Charlie Brown?...The world didn't come to an end."
After mulling over this comment, Charlie Brown gets out of bed and ventures outside. None of his companions pay much attention to him as he strolls by. In the distance, he spots Lucy playing with a football. Just when it seems that Charlie Brown might be able to redeem himself with a small punt, Lucy pulls the football away from him, and the movie concludes with Charlie Brown flat on his back, grimacing at the camera.
A Boy Named Charlie Brown might come across now as harsh and unforgiving--especially to audiences that aren't familiar with the comic strip's cruel undercurrents--but its lessons are more enduring than those from movies where characters fulfill their impossible dreams. Charlie Brown learns through Linus's tough-love speech that failure, no matter how painful, is not permanent, and that the best means of withstanding it is simply to show up the next day to school with the fortitude to try again. Losing also forces Charlie Brown to come to terms with his own limitations. He can't rely on a miraculous victory to rescue him from his tormented childhood. He followed his dream, it didn't pan out, and he ends up more or less where he started, only a little more experienced and presumably with a little more respect from his peers. They may no longer be able to refer to him as "failure-face," but Lucy still yanks away the football when he becomes too hopeful. It's incremental, rather than life-altering, progress.