By Kenneth Turan
Times Staff Writer
April 28, 2006
As the title indicates, "Akeelah" is yet another film — following Jeff Blitz's marvelous documentary "Spellbound" and the underrated drama "Bee Season" — to find high emotion in the unlikely world of competitive spelling bees for middle school kids.
The twist is that in this case the institution is the academically challenged Crenshaw Middle School in South Los Angeles. And the story that writer-director Doug Atchison wants to tell involves not only spelling but also achievement, empowerment and neighborhood pride.
Because few films want to tell these kinds of stories about that part of the city, "Akeelah" has attracted high-powered talent. Together for the first time since "What's Love Got to Do With It" are Angela Bassett, who plays Akeelah's mother, and Laurence Fishburne as the coach who mentors her. Though they don't have many scenes together, their presence and ability give this film a welcome integrity.
Holding her own with them is 11-year-old Keke Palmer as Akeelah. Already the recipient of a Screen Actors Guild best leading actress nomination for the TV film "The Wool Cap," Palmer provides the spirit and intelligence this feature could not exist without. She makes Akeelah, an old soul in her kid's version of granny glasses, someone whose every mood change — and there are many — we pay close attention to.
Despite all these good things, "Akeelah" is encumbered by Atchison's determination to cross every emotional T and dot every narrative I. If Starbucks Entertainment is trumpeting its involvement in this film with ads insisting, "We're Thinking Outside the Bean," the film's difficulty is that it doesn't. It sets up obstacles we know will disappear and telegraphs its plot elements well before they happen. This is no more than par for the course with films of this type, but because of the caliber of the cast and the sincerity of the message, one wishes it could be otherwise.
Practically the first time we meet Akeelah, she is contemptuously tossing away a flier advertising her school's spelling bee. Unwilling to be stigmatized as a freak or a brainiac, she prefers to keep her gift for spelling (courtesy of her late father, a bear for Scrabble) a secret from the world.
As far as her mother, Tanya (Bassett), is concerned, that's just as well. With one young daughter already a mother and one son flirting with being a gangbanger (though another son is doing well in the Air Force), Tanya just doesn't want to be bothered with what she views as the foolishness of spelling competitions.
Much more interested is the somber Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), a man of self-described "acerbic wit and sour disposition" who is on sabbatical from his position as chairman of the UCLA English department and so has a lot of time on his hands.
A stern type who actually says "I'll brook no nonsense" with a straight face, the good doctor and Akeelah are not exactly each other's type. He views her as insolent; she sees no reason to be interested in the broader cultural education he wants her to master in addition to spelling.
Her brainiac qualms notwithstanding, Akeelah enters the world of bees (there wouldn't be a film if she didn't), and soon enough she meets two key peers. Javier (J.R. Villarreal) is a gregarious Latino with supportive parents, while the robotic Dylan (Sean Michael Afable) is a humorless Asian American spelling machine with Darth Vader for a father.
It wouldn't be fair to detail all the ups and downs of Akeelah's relationships with these kids and with Dr. Larabee, ever the sad-eyed voice of doom, who tells her that he's seen spelling bees "chew kids up and spit them out." Whatever happened to "Have a nice day"?
While its undeniable earnestness leaves "Akeelah and the Bee" open to good-natured teasing, in its own way it raises important points about the nature of education, the importance of community and obstacles to success that kids from poor neighborhoods face.
It's a message to which movies don't pay nearly enough attention.
'Akeelah and the Bee'
MPAA rating: PG for some language
A Lionsgate release. Writer-director Doug Atchison. Producers Nancy Hult Ganis, Sid Ganis. Director of photography M. David Mullen. Editor Glenn Farr.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
In general release.
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