Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is an exceptionally bright young girl attending school in south LA. She is not challenged by the crowded educational system and simply coasts along in school until her teacher, Ms. Cross (Dalia Phillips), seeing that the girl consistently scores 100% on every spelling test, suggests that Akeelah enter the local bee. But, her hard working single mom, Tanya (Angela Bassett), doesn’t have time for such nonsense, despite the fact that her daughter readily wins the local event in Akeelah and the Bee.”
Writer/director Doug Atchison journeys down a road well traveled with his tale of a young inner city girl who decides to enter the competitive world of the spelling bee. We’ve been there before with the popular 2002 documentary, “Spellbound,” and last year’s feature, “Bee Season.” Unfortunately, his effort to cover the same territory with “Akeelah and the Bee” feels more like an HBO after school special than it does a feature length film as he stacks one cliché upon another telling of the youngster’s trials and tribulations making it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Tanya, after very long days working as a nurse to support her fatherless family, has little time or inclination to support Akeelah’s desire to enter a local bee. But, the plucky youngster attends anyway. And wins. The girl is off to the regional contest and, through her school principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstong), enlists the help and guidance of the scholarly Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who brings Akeelah back to basics as she prepares for the next level in spelling. Big words come from little words, he advises, as she finds her level in the competitive world of the spelling bee.
There is little by way of surprise as Akeelah rises through the ranks and wins the regional event, propelling her to the nationals. Of course, there is angst and inspiration along the way as mom initially disdains the contest. But, the folks in the ‘hood are pleased as punch to have a celebrity in their midst and everyone bands together to help Akeelah get ready for the big showdown in Washington, DC.
The lump in my throat that formed while watching Akeelah and the Bee” must have been caused by the solidifying treacle I had to swallow while watching this by-the-numbers fictional account of one little girl’s fight to be first in the world of spelling. Little Keke Palmer is enjoyable as Akeelah but she is enveloped in an unimaginative story that plods along until its all-things-to-all people finale. Laurence Fishburne puts on a clipped, formal speech pattern as he precisely pronounces his words to prove that he is, indeed, a scholar. Angela Bassett, though educated enough as Tanya to be a nurse, doesn’t share Larabee’s enthusiasm for Akeelah’s dedication to words and ignores, for the most part, her daughter’s obvious gift. Until, of course, she has an epiphany and does a turnaround at the crucial moment. Curtis Armstrong comes across best as Akeelah’s supportive principal, Mr. Welch.
There are a couple of side stories, once Akeelah attains the lofty heights of the national bee. Her friendship with one of the other contenders, Javier (J.R. Villarreal), is a nice little touch as the more experienced boy shows her the ropes competing at the highest level of spelling. Villarreal is a likable presence, if a bit unbelievable. The other story involves the best and the brightest, Dylan (Sean Michael), who is inexorably pushed by his strict, demanding father (Tzi Ma) to win, win, win. This part plays prominently in the sappy, happy ending.
Techs are, like the movie, geared more toward quality television than to the theaters. As I said, this could have been a made-for-TV event, but the director and company stretch the slight material to nearly two-hours in length. The audience for this slender effort is still in grade school with little new and different to recommend it for anyone older than, say, the age of 12. Anyone beyond that age will be checking their watches to see how much longer this thing will run. My recommendation is to rent the film’s I mentioned earlier – “Spellbound” for its honest look at a real national spell-off and “Bee Season” for a film that has, in its heart, a real love for words. Akeelah and the Bee” lacks both of these qualities. I give it a C.
Laura did not see this film.
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