Akeelah and the Bee Review
By Joe Lozito
It's hard to believe the best family film so far this year comes from a writer-director whose previous film bears the unfortunate title "The Pornographer". But as Doug Atchison's new film "Akeelah and the Bee" - a heartwarming, spelling bee Cinderella story - might teach us, you can find inspiration where you least expect it.
In the case of "Akeelah and the Bee", it's in South Los Angeles' Crenshaw Middle School. When Akeelah Anderson's father is tragically killed (off camera), the 11 year-old turns to spelling as a means of grieving (her father was also an avid Scrabble player). But in South Los Angeles' Crenshaw Middle School, being too smart will get you labeled "brainiac" and quickly ostracized. Akeelah, who has a problem with attendance, is encouraged by her teacher Ms. Cross (Dalia Phillips) and Principal Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong, himself no stranger to "Nerds") to join the school's spelling bee where she, naturally, excels. Mr. Welch, eager to garner the school some positive press, brings along Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a former spelling champ-turned-professor now on sabbatical. Dr. Larabee recognizes Akeelah as a diamond in the rough, but must be convinced that she is willing to commit to her education. As the film deftly details, spelling bees are not just about memorizing but about learning the origins of words.
Like Jeffrey Blitz' masterful 2002 documentary, "Spellbound", "Akeelah" shows us the dark side of that most geeky of competitions. Spelling Bees are rarely about the children who enter them; like rival soccer moms, the parents of these poor children tend to be playing out their own lost opportunities. This is exemplified in "Akeelah" by poor Dylan Chiu, a beleaguered Asian boy with a stereotypically strict father (given some depth by Tzi Ma). The relationship that slowly forms between Dylan and Akeelah is unexpectedly touching.
Where Mr. Blitz' documentary fortuitously hitched its wagon to a handful of spelling stars, "Akeelah" must rely on the performances of its young actors. The key to the success of this film is that the kids actually speak, act and look like real children. There're no WB-wannabes here. These kids are awkwardly struggling through the early stages of adolescence.
Ironically, it was the performances of the adult stars that had me worried, particularly Mr. Fishburne and Angela Bassett, who plays Akeelah's widowed mother. Obviously, the big-name draws for the film, both actors fell into some bad habits at first. Mr. Fishburne seemed to be channeling Morpheus, intoning in his infamous baritone, "she could be the one" (or something like that). And Ms. Bassett - who is always a fierce, vital presence - initially chews the scenery around her fellow actors, rarely making a connection with them or reality. Both actors, though, come around later in the film, particularly Mr. Fishburne, whose Dr. Larabee proves a fitting Mr. Miyagi to Akeelah's Karate Kid.
But the real heart of the film is 13 year-old Keke Palmer, who plays Akeelah. From the very start of the film, Ms. Palmer projects a genuine warmth that never flags throughout the film. Already an actress with quite a resume behind her, Ms. Palmer is the real deal - a child actress with an understanding beyond her years.
Yes, "Akeelah" goes through the motions of a typical against-all-odds family drama (there're not too many plot twists here), but while it flirts with sappy manipulations, the performances - particularly the kids - leap over schmaltzy hurdles that could have turned the film into a standard after-school special. You'll need to forgive it the contrivances of its genre and let "Akeelah" cast its spell.