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May 5, 2006

Feel-good Akeelah mostly avoids g-e-n-r-e trappings

Akeelah and the Bee is the latest story about a new national obsession with spelling bees—you may have heard of the book-turned-movie Bee Season, or, of course, the documentary Spellbound. Meet the new addition to the folio: Akeelah Anderson, an 11-year-old girl living in south Los Angeles. The youngest member of a loving but troubled family, Akeelah (played by Keke Palmer) has a talent for words but lives as a mediocre student at a drastically under-funded middle school. Akeelah’s mother, played by Angela Basset, is widowed, overworked, and constantly worried that her son is falling in with a bad crowd. The young girl’s situation is summed up in one simple shot of Akeelah poring over a dictionary in her room as the camera pans out to the sounds of sirens and barking dogs. Blackmailed by the school principal into competing in her first spelling bee, Akeelah is certainly an unlikely candidate for spelling stardom, and the film’s against-all-odds premise continues from there.

The best aspect of Akeelah and the Bee might be its sports-like approach to the newly popular, but still offbeat, spelling phenomenon. Film montages of Akeelah studying for the bee are reminiscent of Rocky or Miracle, especially when Akeelah jumps rope as a mnemonic device for remembering words. Moreover, the film overcomes the difficult task of adding drama and suspense to what comes down to a bunch of kids stringing together letters in the right order. Every time Akeelah steps up to the microphone, a hushed tension falls over the audience, and I admit to holding my breath while Akeelah faces words that would make any self-respecting, spellcheck-dependent student cringe. The film is so good at playing on hope and fear that the audience in my movie theater clapped and cheered along with the audience onscreen as Akeelah conquers one word after another. Sure, it plays almost unfairly on your emotions, but it does so in such a way that you enjoy giving in. Just like all feel-good sports movies, you leave with that hope-in-the-world high, and the vague feeling that you, too, have the power to do anything: Win the Iron Man, do your laundry, whatever.

Akeelah and the Bee markets itself as the number-one family film of the year, and its placement into the “family” genre is never thrown into question. There’s certainly something standard about the movie’s depiction of Akeelah’s power to inspire the people around her (the teacher becomes the student, the reluctant mother comes around as a proud parent), but the cheesiness is never unbearable. There are a few too many of “those” moments and a certain noticeable absence of realism here and there, but interesting details along with some unexpected twists save it from falling victim to formula. At the height of her victory momentum, Akeelah is abandoned by her spelling guru Dr. Larabee and forced to rely on herself and the community around her to study for the big event. This results in scenes with Akeelah being quizzed by her mother, the postman, and, most memorably, the neighborhood thug.

Keke Palmer delivers an overall solid performance, albeit with some forced child acting here and there. Awkward moments aside, she really does sell the part, and the second half of the movie is especially believable. Laurence Fishburne, on the other hand, could have done a lot better. In fact, it seems like he didn’t even really bother to try. He turns his character of the stately Dr. Larabee into an exaggeration of every “teacher” figure you’ve ever seen on film, making him stilted, to say the least. The supporting characters are both over-simplified and entertaining. Sure, the Asian kid is set up as a fearsome competitor who is driven by his overbearing father, and the fat kid is jovial and gets all the laughs. Even if they are walking “labels,” they still have their moments, and they occasionally surprise you when you’re sure you have them pegged.

I won’t ruin the ending for you. All I can say is that, like the rest of the movie, it’s satisfying in a way that you don’t expect. Akeelah and the Bee could very well have been another train wreck of an after-school special, but it saves itself with nice touches, momentum, and, ultimately, a character whom you want to root for. I’m not saying that you should take your hipster friends, but you don’t have to see it with nine-year-olds either. Why eat filet mignon when you’re in the mood for a hamburger? You just might like it.