Akeelah and the Bee
Spelling bees are all the buzz right now. Four years ago, the documentary Spellbound gave us a gaggle of eccentric, word-obsessed children—and their sometimes even more eccentric parents. Last year, Bee Season gave us a rather strange but visually inventive dysfunctional-family drama steeped in Kabbalistic mysticism. And now, Akeelah and the Bee gives us the uplifting after-school special about a girl from a bad neighborhood who rises above her circumstances with the help of a few grown-ups who believe in her.
The new movie is every bit as clichéd and predictable as you'd expect, but thanks to some fine performances, especially from the young leads, it is quite watchable. Keke Palmer is especially convincing as the frustrated but easily intimidated Akeelah Anderson, an 11-year-old who knows she's smart but is afraid to let it show, even when the teachers encourage her, because it will mean further mockery and ostracism from her so-called peers.
Akeelah loves words because her late father did, before he became yet another victim of the streets; to honor him, she plays Scrabble games with his photo. She gets some moral support from her eldest brother when he's home from his stints with the Air Force, but the rest of her family is a set of inner-city obstacles waiting to be overcome: an overworked mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), who objects to Akeelah's ambitions more often than not; a brash older sister, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), with an illegitimate baby; and another brother whose, uh, activities outside the home are never really spelled out—but if he wears expensive watches and attracts the attention of the police, they probably aren't all that good.
School isn't much better. Like a lot of smart kids, Akeelah has skipped a grade and is still so uninvolved in her classes that she has begun to skip those, too. But when her principal (Curtis Armstrong, of Revenge of the Nerds and Better Off Dead) hears that she gets perfect scores on her spelling tests, he uses her absenteeism to blackmail her into taking part in the school's first-ever spelling bee—which he has cooked up in the hope that it will bring attention and, more importantly, funds to his neglected and dilapidated facility.
As she anticipated, Akeelah's opponents in that first spelling bee are unmotivated and easily defeated, and the event is attended by fellow students who make fun of her. But it is also attended by Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), an old college chum of the principal's who knows a thing or two about words himself—and he volunteers to train Akeelah as she goes on, reluctantly, to compete at the higher levels. At first Larabee comes across like Morpheus's nerdy younger brother, peppering Akeelah's lessons with philosophical asides and declaring that she has what it takes to be a champion, et cetera; but as we get to know him, the film begins to humanize him, and we learn that his is a wounded soul, too.
Most significantly, by going to spelling bees in posher neighborhoods and hanging out with her fellow contestants, Akeelah makes some new friends. Chief among these is Javier (J.R. Villarreal), who brings a nicely comic touch to the proceedings, especially when he stalls for time at one event so that an absent Akeelah will not miss a turn and therefore be disqualified. ("Could you use it in a song?" he asks, after exhausting all the questions he is normally allowed to ask once the judges have given him a word.) Not everyone welcomes Akeelah, though. The competitive Dylan (Sean Michael Afable) gives her nothing but scorn, and his stern father (Tzi Ma) looms in the background during a birthday-party Scrabble game like the villain in one of those casino scenes the James Bond movies used to have.