Movie review: ‘Akeelah and the Bee'

MoviesEntertainmentLaurence FishburneKeke PalmerCurtis ArmstrongAngela BassettAlan Young

2½ stars (out of four)

"Akeelah and the Bee" is predictable, corny and formulaic. Maybe we'll see it listed in some future edition of Webster's under the word "precornulaic." Yet this latest triumph of the spelling-bee spirit, like last year's earnest, flawed film version of "Bee Season," features a film-saving performance where it counts most: from the kid playing the kid with big brain and even bigger heart.

Keke Palmer portrays Akeelah, fictional spelling ace of Los Angeles' Crenshaw district. Even when the movie is threatened by the cliched-screenwriting equivalent of a brush fire, her cool, sweet, plaintive screen presence keeps the flames at bay. And she's not alone: She also has Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett giving synthetic material what-for.

Though Akeelah doesn't like being called a "brainiac," the 11-year-old with the careworn widowed mother (Bassett) agrees to take part in her middle school's first-ever spelling bee. She mops up, impressing her principal (Curtis Armstrong, who a generation ago co-starred in the "Revenge of the Nerds" movies). More to the plot point, she impresses a visiting a UCLA English professor (Fishburne) on sabbatical and harboring private anguish that only Akeelah can resolve. The solitary prof becomes the girl's stern spelling coach, readying her for the nationals. It's basically "Million Dollar Baby" with diphthongs, and without the euthanasia.

Some of Doug Atchison's contrivances you can see coming a time zone away. When Dylan (Sean Michael Afable), the best, meanest young speller in L.A. County, announces his imperious-jerk intentions in paint-by-numbers fashion to Akeelah, you know instantly he'll either A) be vanquished by our morally superior protagonist, or B) undergo a change of heart. When Akeelah starts lying to her mother, who won't permit her to participate in the bees, you know there'll be a catch-hell scene or two, followed by a realization that Akeelah has the stuff to go all the way.

You know it, and yet by the time the story goes all the way to the Big Bee, you may find yourself caught up in the hoked-up suspense. It's mainly due to Harvey native Palmer, who has done her job exceptionally well, making a potentially saintly character look, feel and act like a person instead of a fledgling screenwriter's dream of a character.

In terms of technique, director-writer Atchison plays the rest of his movie false when, late in the game, he and editor Glenn Farr switch filming styles for a brief, brisk documentary-style montage akin to the film "Spellbound." Suddenly everybody on screen behaves naturally; the tension and release come through with each new correctly or incorrectly spelled word. Then, before you know it, you're thrown back into the other, precornulaic film again. You can enjoy it in bits and pieces and sometimes in whole scenes anyway. Even though their movie is more like "Akeelah and the B-Plus," Fishburne, Bassett and Palmer spell quality.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Akeelah and the Bee'

Directed and written by Doug Atchison; cinematography by M. David Mullen; edited by Glenn Farr; production design by Warren Alan Young; music by Aaron Zigman; produced by Nancy Hult Ganis, Sid Ganis, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Romersa and Danny Llewelyn. A Lionsgate Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: PG (for some language).

Dr. Larabee - Laurence Fishburne

Tanya - Angela Bassett

Akeelah - Keke Palmer

Mr. Welch - Curtis Armstrong

Javier - JR Villarreal

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