Rated: PG Reviewed by: Chris and Jim (see below) Release date: April 28, 2006 Released by: Lions Gate Films
We wouldn't think that a film about a spelling bee would capture attention for almost two hours, but this little one does, and its in large part to its star, Keke Palmer.
She plays 11 year old Akeelah, an inner-city black spitfire, who skips classes and has poor grades, except when it comes to spelling - there she excels. Her principal (Curtis Armstrong) takes notice of her uncanny gift for words and encourages her to try out for her middle school spelling bee.
Akeelah wins easily and from there, it's on to the regionals and perhaps the National competition. These contests are high-powered, high-pressure events, and Akeelah needs a coach to help. The principal hooks her up with Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, who also produces), a sour tempered man who takes the girl under his wing.
He might be a strict taskmaster, but she holds her own, orally sparring when he gives her hour after hour of homework involving the root origins, spelling and definitions of hundreds of words.
Angela Bassett plays Akeelah's hardworking, single mother who's not supportive of her daughter's aspirations, and J.R. Villarreal is a charismatic fellow competitor.
The film is thoroughly enjoyable, with a focus on having goals, sticking to them and coming out on top. Fishburne comes up with the right mixture of strictness mixed with love, and Keke is perfect as the smart, sassy and sometimes stubborn spelling whiz. All together, the film is not only fun, it's inspirational.
Reviewed by: Jim
There's plenty of uplifting moments in Doug Atchison's Akeelah and the Bee thanks primarily to its endearing pre-pubescent lead character Keke Palmer.
Another "spelling bee" drama for some, Palmer helps take the viewer on a calculated, yet emotional journey which parallels the earnestness of The Karate Kid. The second part of the title opposite Palmer's winning Akeelah Anderson may not be just about spelling, but partially from Laurence Fishburne's testy mentor, aptly named Dr. Larrabee. This underdog tale is rhythmical to the importance of literacy and community outreach, especially where families are not very well-off.
The 11-year-old is very gifted in reciting words and playing Scrabble (on a computer and at a birthday party) but is an underachiever (facing summer school) and needs motivation. Akeelah goes to a primarily black, low-funded middle school in south central LA who'll meet the wishes of her teacher (Dahlia Phillips) and principal (Curtis Armstrong) and win her school's competition, with the opportunity to somehow make it all the way to the National Finals in Washington (having noticed it on ESPN). Akeelah is fretful about the reaction of her fellow seventh graders being seen as a brainiac.
Dealing with the loss of her father whom she pictures, Akeelah becomes drawn to the no-nonsense, reserved etymologist and UCLA professor Dr. Larrabee, currently on sabbatical. Her extracurricular, clandestine training goes against the wishes of uptight, hard-working nurse and mother Tanya (Angela Bassett, who excelled with Fishburne in What's Love Got to do With It). She's got enough on her table with a couple of Akeelah's siblings, while the oldest is on leave from the Air Force.
The connection between the paunchy, formal Fishburne (a producer) and the feisty, somewhat shy Palmer works after he dismisses her at first. Larrabee will groom her in ways that has her learning a new way to learn which involves mnemonics and unusual word derivations, while utilizing her unique habit of keeping time.
Palmer really displays much rooting interest from the methods of Fishburne's surrogate father, influenced by the philosophy of Nelson Mandela. Ironically, Dr. Larrabee has more in common with Akeelah than a strong interest in spelling. It results in a tearful moment after she's gotten him a Christmas present and returns a jump rope with a "D" and "L" engraved on it.
Luminous, crisp lensing, with handheld touches, helps elevate and bring significance of the spelling bee on a social level, not through religion, as Bee Season, with its effacious visualization of words from letters, did. Atchison's work from his honored 2000 screenplay shows Akeelah's advancement and determination while providing a melting pot in a city like LA. There is nice camerawork at USC, site of the Regional Finals, where things don't look too optimistic for the preternatural girl.
Palmer has nice moments with the friendly, easy-going Mexican-American Javier (J.R. Villareal - could be a comedian in the making) as they begin to like each other while practicing together. And she'll get some snide remarks from Asian-American prodigy, two-time National runner-up Dylan (Sean Michael Afable). Dylan's haughty dad (Tzi Ma) fits in with some of the picture's heavy-handed qualities that could have landed his character in the provocative Crash. Are they that unsocial because it's the last chance for Dylan to win the title?
Akeelah and the Bee, however, is a salutary and inspirational in such a manner that makes the tension of heightened competition culminating in the lengthy Scripps National Bee in D.C. earning points when it comes to change and self-redemption, among other things. Big words come from little ones, and the affection to individual scenes makes the whole resonate mirroring the Final Four in college basketball. And, a very cute, bespectacled Palmer, working against the odds and the pressures to succeed, makes the spellbound Akeelah quite charming as good sportsmanship prevails in an event that has become a national phenomenon.
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