Akeelah and the Bee

The story of a young girl’s unlikely journey from an under-funded public school to the National Spelling Bee finals, Akeelah and the Bee is an inspirational drama powered by template familiarity and an abundance of earnestness. The winner of the 2000 Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, writer-director Doug Atchison’s film pulls heartstrings effectively if frequently deliberately, but locates genuine feeling with such sincerity that it stands poised to catch fire with early summer niche audiences open to emotive counter-programming in the face of an onslaught of bigger-budget flash.

While a very different type of movie, one of the things last summer’s documentary smash March of the Penguins proved was there is a market for heartfelt, broad-audience films outside of the more traditional, big studio family fare. Though lacking that film’s novelty, Akeelah and the Bee could easily emerge as a low-lying, long-playing arthouse success, given proper coddling and circumstance.

The film’s plot is a relatively straightforward and chronological telling of personal triumph, charting the progression of Akeelah Anderson (newcomer Keke Palmer, above), a bright but somewhat shy 11-year-old girl, through a handful of city and regional contests to the national finals in Washington, D.C. An excellent student with spotty attendance, Akeelah hails from one of the poorer school districts in Los Angeles, and is goaded into entering her class’ spelling bee by her principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), who’s desperate to affect change and improve his school’s image.

Despite the objection of her mother Tanya (Angela Bassett), Akeelah presses forward with the guidance and assistance of Mr. Welch’s friend, forthright former college professor Dr. Josh Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). As she meets and befriends fellow competitors that have in some cases been training for years, Akeelah overcomes self-doubt and rallies the proud residents of her community behind her, scoring a spot in the finals and competing for the championship.

Some of the film is shot on location, helping give it a rooted sense of place. While not gritty by any means, these passages help highlight the difference between Akeelah’s world and the more privileged upbringing of her fellow contestants. The film is likewise studded with occasional, incisive dialogue that helps underline the racial and class divides under the microscope, such as when Akeelah says to her principal of Dr. Larabee, “He lives in this neighborhood? I thought you said he was important.”

While the movie is less successful in its conveyance of the passage of time (it ostensibly takes place over the course of a year), Atchison succeeds in the savvy casting of the kids’ roles, and his work with them. Palmer deserves special praise for her natural work as Akeelah; she brings a real sympathy to a role that could be cloying if just played for precocity. It’s young JR Villarreal, though — as Javier, an outgoing fellow contestant who develops a crush on Akeelah and helps root her onward in only the manner that a peer can — who steals the show.

Fishburne and Bassett, reunited from What’s Love Got to Do With It, do not share many scenes together, but each successfully fulfill their function within the narrative. As a professor still emotionally damaged by the loss of his own child and wife, Fishburne approximates mournful gravitas chiefly through equally clipped and hushed tones, a technique he’s plied many times before. In the more difficult but better sketched role, Bassett must show both a single mother’s tough love as well as a yielding realization that Akeelah needs her unconditional support. That the film doesn’t force a love connection between the two is appreciated. (Lions Gate, PG, 112 mins.)


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