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
attendance, Akeelah hails from one of the poorer school districts in
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
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),
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.)