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Akeelah and the Bee

Another Movie Centered on a "Dramatic" Spelling Bee

After Spellbound and Bee Season, do theatergoers need another film where a spelling bee plays a key part in turning around the lives of the central characters? Probably not, but Akeelah and the Bee, an "underdog" story centered on an eleven-year old, inner-city African-American girl who competes in the national spelling bee, was written more than half a decade ago by writer/director Doug Atchison. Atchison's film is badly timed, since Akeelah and the Bee will be criticized for being derivative, but Atchison's film still manages to work on an emotional level, while touching on thought provoking racial, class, and cultural issues. The film is also highly manipulative and sentimental, unlikely to appeal to sophisticated adult audiences (parents with children may think differently, however).

Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is among the brightest students at her school, but she also underachieves. She often skips class with her best friend, Georgia (Sahara Garey). Although she has a partly innate love of words and language, Akeelah cautiously hides her natural intelligence and curiosity to fit in at school and at home. Akeelah lives with her single mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), a hardworking hospital employee, her older sister, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), a single mother, and older brother Terrence, a gangbanger wannabee. Her oldest brother, Devon (Lee Thompson Young), presents another alternative: he's joined the Air Force to get a college education.

Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), Akeelah's principal, encourages an uninterested Akeelah to compete in the school's spelling bee. She wins the competition easily earning a berth in the district competition. Welch brings in an old friend, Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a college professor on sabbatical, to observe Akeelah. Despite reservations, Larabee agrees to tutor Akeelah. Akeelah's headstrong, of course, and bridles at Larabee's no-nonsense methods. While he tutors Akeelah to prepare for the spelling bees, Larabee also hopes to impart his appreciation of African-American literature and culture to Akeelah. Grudging mutual respect and admiration follows.

Along the way to the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C., Akeelah acquires some new brainy friends, including Javier (J.R. Villarreal), a Latino boy from a more affluent family and picks up an unfriendly nemesis in the humorless Dylan (Sean Michael), a two-time national runner-up and Dylan's hard-driving, immigrant father, Mr. Chiu (Tzi Ma). You can guess where Akeelah and the Bee ends, but to Atchison's credit, it takes a slightly different road to get there.

Akeelah and the Bee has everything the typical "underdog" story has, a sympathetic lead character (she's lost her father, lives in an impoverished neighborhood), the tough, but compassionate, hiding-a-secret mentor, multiple obstacles and reversals (both personal and external) and, of course, a series of competitions where Akeelah gets the chance to prove herself. Formulas work for a reason, though, and "underdog" stories especially, due to their simple storylines of adversity and triumph, plus their life-affirming optimism that taps into the American ethos of personal responsibility and individualism. While Akeelah and the Bee doesn't meaningfully stretch or overturn the formula, the culture-specific aspects of the storyline do. Atchison makes a potentially controversial point about the "flattening effect" some minority communities have on children marked as somehow special or talented (e.g., their talents are subtly undermined or otherwise discouraged).

On the negative side, Atchison over-sentimentalizes Akeelah's personal journey. Atchison has Akeelah talk to a photo of her father, and during the climactic spelling bee, continually cuts back to different locations back in L.A. (which continues even after the spelling bee ends). He also lays on the syrupy musical cues to underline key emotional moments. Did Atchison really have to make the villain a stereotypical Asian-American father/coach and his equally driven son? To be fair, though, Atchison makes an effort to humanize Dylan right before the national spelling bee to soften this potential critique.

Akeelah and the Bee also suffers from more than a few continuity errors, but they're relatively minor (and for most viewers, easily forgiven or overlooked). Laurence Fishburne performance as Akeelah's mentor turns out to be the standout performance here. Despite some trite dialogue, Fishburne imbues his character with gravitas and pathos, especially during Larabee's key confessional scene. Angela Bassett, alas, is sadly wasted in an underwritten role. In her first role, newcomer Keke Palmer as Akeelah shows promise. The same, though, can't be said for the other child actors who give raw, unpolished performances.

If Akeelah and the Bee is any indication, Atchison proves himself a better screenwriter than director, but family-oriented viewers will be more than willing to look past Akeelah and the Bee's technical shortcomings and enjoy the simple, inspirational, uplifting storyline.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars