Hollywood is in the midst of a certified spelling bee craze thanks to films like Spellbound and ... well, Bee Season. That’s not what you’d call a tidal wave of films exactly, but it only took Volcano and Dante’s Peak for 1997 to be labeled “The Year of the Volcano.” In 1998, Deep Impact and Armageddon made it “The Year of the Asteroid.” So, two films about a subject as obscure and seemingly uncinematic as spelling bees is impressive. Now comes yet another film, Akeelah and the Bee, set in the cutthroat world of middle school spelling bees. Three films? Get out of the way, people! It’s a tsunami!
Akeelah and the Bee is a cast-iron feel-good film. Given its sincere message and cute subject matter, it’s all but impossible to criticize the film without coming across as a total monster. Despite a scattering of clichés and an overly familiar story structure, it’s sure to please audiences and will probably end up on a few top 10 lists for the year.
The film centers on Akeelah (underage TV vet Keke Palmer), an 11-year-old girl living in South Central Los Angeles with her single mother (the always-welcome Angela Bassett). Akeelah is a gifted but unmotivated student, happy to spend most of her days skipping class and ignoring her teachers. Turns out our gal is just bored with school. She’s got a genius IQ and a real affinity for words, as imparted by her late father.
Impressed with her vocabulary and desperately seeking publicity for his impoverished inner-city school, the principal (Curtis Armstrong, Revenge of the Nerds) strongarms Akeelah into participating in the school’s first spelling bee. Naturally, Akeelah wins, catching the eye of visiting English Professor Joshua Larabee (stately Laurence Fishburne, marking his third film appearance with Bassett and his first appearance alongside the guy who played “Booger”).
Larabee offers to coach Akeelah for the regional competition, but her headstrong nature causes friction, and the two part ways. Through a stroke of luck, Akeelah wins the regional spelling bee. Swallowing her pride, she comes crawling back to Larabee for some ancient Jedi wisdom, much of it imparted in the form of the patented Movie Montage. (See for reference: the lyrics to “Montage” from Team America: World Police.)
Akeelah and the Bee is more or less a rejiggered version of The Karate Kid, with Laurence Fishburne stepping into the gruff-but-wise Mr. Miyagi role and little Keke Palmer making a slightly tougher substitute for girlie Ralph Macchio. To top it off, all the crane-stance head kicks have been replaced with vocabulary words. (“Your word is appoggiatura.” Ouch! That’s gotta hurt.)
Sure to be embraced and exalted by educators, Akeelah counts as a bonafide breakout effort by writer/director Doug Atchison (whose previous effort, The Pornographer, seems like an odd lead-in). Atchison’s script does trot out a few clichés. The black kids all live in gang-infested neighborhoods, the white kids are all rich and the Asian kids are all academic overachievers with too-demanding parents. Still, Akeelah doesn’t wallow in its simplification. Our pint-sized protagonists’ friendship with a happy-go-lucky Hispanic kid who comes from an upscale L.A. neighborhood does seem to break the mold a bit. Plus, Palmer grounds the film with her realistic performance, confronting issues of self-esteem, popularity, parental control and growing maturity in a manner that seems entirely age-appropriate.
Storywise, the film is as predictable as can be. It follows the pattern of pretty much every underdog, come-from-behind sporting flick ever made. That Akeelah will make it to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. is never in question. The slowly revealed backstories of sassy Akeelah and grumpy Larabee dovetail in a way that is far too convenient for real life. Along the way, Atchison’s script plays our heartstrings like a banjo at the Grand Ole Opry. (Frequently quoting the “Our greatest fear is that we are inadequate” speech--written by Marianne Williamson and often misattributed, as here, to Nelson Mandela--is dirty emotional pool.) Still, it’s hard to deny the cumulative effect of it all. Any film that can turn Latinate words and Greek-derived suffixes into a stand-up-and-cheer climax certainly deserves a little credit.
Emerging from Akeelah and the Bee not a little misty-eyed is a tough assignment. Kudos, of course, for pitching such a pro-literate message and not softballing it for the kiddies with sophomoric humor and preachy speeches. In the end, this simple “embrace your potential” tale of struggle and triumph proves that knowledge really is power.