It seems that ever since the popular success of the documentary SPELLBOUND -- the
Academy Award winning documentary, not the Hitchcock classic -- the spelling bee has become
something of a staple in the arts. On Broadway, there was the award-winning musical
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, and 2005 saw the release of the
film version of Myla Goldberg's novel BEE SEASON. Now comes the uplifting and enjoyable --
albeit predictable -- AKEELAH AND THE BEE.
Like many preteens, Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is not comfortable when attention is put on her.
She has a gift for words and spelling and often earns top grades on her quizzes. We see her at
home pouring over a dictionary and trying to learn new words, partly in tribute to her late father.
When her inner city school's principal (Curtis Armstrong) announces a spelling contest, Akeelah
is expected to participate, in spite of her reluctance. She handily wins her school's contest and
finds herself challenged by a stranger in the audience. It turns out he is Dr. Larabee (Laurence
Fishburne, who also served as one of the film's producers) and he is there at the invitation of the
principal to scout Akeelah's potential as a competitor.
At first the young girl and the educator hit a rocky patch. Her pride makes Akeelah think
that she is capable of competing without help and she curtly rejects Dr. Larabee's assistance.
After she wins one of the preliminary competitions on a technicality, she comes to realize that
she might benefit from some assistance. Over the objections of her hardworking disciplinarian
mother Tanya (Angela Bassett), Akeelah agrees to be tutored and works to achieving a spot in
the Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held in Washington, DC.
Along the way, there are predictable obstacles: Tanya finds out she's been deceived and
nearly derails her daughter's chances; Akeelah and Larabee have a prickly relationship that
eventually leads to a sort of surrogate bond; one of her main rivals (Sean Michael Afable)
causes Akeelah to question the competition; etc.
Doug Atchison's screenplay skirts sentimentality but his direction is on the mark. In
casting such pros as Fishburne and Bassett (reunited onscreen for the first time since
WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?) and a bevy of talented youngsters, especially Palmer
and JR Villarreal as a slightly more experienced competitor who takes Akeelah under his wing,
the filmmaker compensates for the flaws in the script.
Keke Palmer has to shoulder the main responsibility of carrying the movie and this amazing
young actress handles it with such grace and ease. She is a major find and has the potential
to be this generation's Jodie Foster.
Although AKEELAH AND THE BEE manages to generate some suspense along the way,
its conclusion is pretty much as one might expect. But thanks to the cast, the movie will appeal
to audiences and make anyone who views it leave the theater feeling uplifted.
MPAA rating: PG for some language
Running time: 112 mins.
Viewed at the Magno Review One
|Akeelah and the Bee
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.