“Akeelah and the Bee” is that rarest of movies. A movie willfully exerts its sentimental propaganda to an audience who has been exposed to and since made immune by each narrative trick it will use.
On the surface level, it is a fairly conventional story of a spirited 11-year-old girl named Akeelah, played with plucky wide-eyed charm by Keke Palmer. She lives with her widowed mother (Angela Bassett) in South Central Los Angeles, where the ambient noises of the evening rarely vary from police sirens and skidding getaway cars. The sounds also include her mother’s distinctive stentorian voice as she tries to talk some sense into Akeelah’s older brother about his dealings with the shady characters from the neighborhood.
After her English teacher notices her keen spelling ability, even though her attendance has not been up to par, her teacher corners her into competing in the school spelling bee. Akeelah wins to her embarrassment as well as her amazement. She grapples with the social consequences of competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington.
Her overstressed mom doesn’t exactly support the idea. She launches several lengthy harangues about the importance of skipping the competition and having Akeelah focus on her schoolwork instead.
Akeelah stays firm though, and with the guidance of Laurence Fishburne, who plays the word-wise Dr. Joshua Larabee, she is tutored in preparation for her pursuit of the National spelling title. He presses her to fulfill her potential, not just as a wordsmith, but also as a person.
Anyone who has seen a film regarding outcast pre-teens involved in some kind of academic, sporting or performance competition have a fair idea where the film is headed. The film also is overly preachy in its philosophical musings about never being “afraid of you” i.e. her own greatness that is there for her to seize.
When Dr. Larabee convinces Akeelah to abandon her metronomic device of keeping time with her spelling of the words for a jump rope instead, it’s likened to the “wax on Wax off” scene from “Karate Kid” with it’s crescendo horns and extreme close-ups of Akeelah doing her playground best. It’s close to almost going over the top, but never does.
“Akeelah and the Bee” is a delight despite its occasional tendency toward extreme sentimentality and that penchant for peachiness. That’s due in part by the adult stars, who keep things steady, and never seem to play down to a formula. When Fishburne explains the relevance of the word ” Solitariness ” to Akeelah, he does so with conviction and purpose.
It is also attributed to Doug Atchison’s smart script and sensitive direction. He stages the spelling bee scenes wonderfully as each letter uttered in the word “Pluviosity” under the beaming spotlights take on an amplified sense of relevance. The finality of one slip-up is always hanging over the proceedings, making the audience feel the tension as well.
But most of all, there’s Palmer, who first appeared Queen Latifah’s niece in “Barbershop 2” and as the juvenile delinquent foster kid in “Madea’s Family Reunion.” She has a definite spark on the screen as has the makings of a child star with potentially a bright future.
She’s ambrosial, feisty, charismatic, convincingly adroit, and cute-as-a button … well, she’s the kind of child actor who makes you run out of words, although she never does.