It’s about as old-fashioned as it can be. It obviously attempts to cash in on the freakish success of Spellbound, as well as the art-house cache of Bee Season. At bottom, it’s basically a pretty standard uplifting underdog sports flick — except the sport is cerebral rather than physical. It culminates in what has to be world’s most improbable — and in some senses, cop-out — ending. To make matters worse, there’s a faintly disagreeable corporate sense to its status as the first film from Starbucks Entertainment (however, I don’t recall a single person in the film quaffing a caramel latte, an iced mocha Frappuccino or, indeed, any coffee product).
By all rights, Akeelah and the Bee ought to be easily written off as simplistic, derivative, manipulative, feel-good pap — a cheesy lesson in self-empowerment of the After School Special variety. The problem is, you see, that the movie itself gets in the way of this kind of dismissal. There’s just too much charm, too much heart, too much obvious sincerity and too much genuine quality to allow the film to be blown off.
I’ve noted before that some movies succeed not because they surprise us, but because they do exactly that which we expect and want them to do. Akeelah and the Bee is just that sort of movie.
Writer-director Doug Atchison has only one previous feature to his credit — a little seen work from 1999, The Pornographer, a low-budget indie that seems to have gone straight to video. If his current effort is any barometer, it suggests seeking out his earlier effort, and certainly keeping a lookout for his next one.
His storyline for Akeelah and the Bee isn’t much more than adequate. Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer, Madea’s Family Reunion) attends an incredibly impoverished school in South Central L.A. — a place so rundown that there are no doors on the bathroom stalls. In a voice-over, she tells us that she always feels like she doesn’t fit in — and no surprise, since Akeelah is too smart for her surroundings. She has to actively try to dumb herself down in order to even approximate being a part of the world in which she finds herself. Among her talents, she’s good at spelling — something she can do without trying, it seems — but she avoids making an issue of it for fear of being branded as some kind of freak in a world that looks down on academic achievement.
However, she’s so bored with her classes (being apparently too smart for the level at which she’s being taught) and has a poor attendance record, which gives the principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Amstrong, Ray), the leverage to make her compete in the school spelling bee — or face endless detention. Here, the script departs a bit from the dictates of its form, because Welch isn’t wholly altruistic — he sees the possibility of Akeelah’s spelling prowess as a way of revitalizing his school. To this end, he’s invited one of his old classmates, Dr. Joshua Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne), to watch the spelling bee, convinced that Larrabee will see Akeelah’s potential and possibly coach her in a bid for national glory.
From this point on, the film proceeds along a pretty standard course, but it’s an incredibly well-charted course, despite Atchison’s tendency to want to include a little bit of everything along the way. What’s astonishing is how nearly all of this works — from Larrabee’s secret sorrow to the problems raised by Akeelah’s mother (Angela Bassett) to the rift the competition causes between Akeelah and her best friend (TV actress Sahara Garey) to Akeelah’s incipient romance/friendship with an upscale Mexican-American boy (TV actor J.R. Villarreal) to the final showdown at the national spelling bee.
Sure, some parts are credulity-straining — for example, Akeelah getting support from neighborhood “gangsta” Derrick-T (Eddie Steeples, best known for the Office Max ads featuring the song “Rubberband Man,” which also surfaces here). And movie’s ending is, as noted, a bit much, but it’s also the most satisfying ending possible and I can’t imagine the film without it. It’s also beautifully handled in a way that is dramatically, cinematically and emotionally rewarding.
That’s something in itself — as are the spot-on performances of the entire cast. What’s more, think: When was the last time you encountered a movie that dared to suggest that empowerment might be gained through knowledge? That alone, makes Akeelah and the Bee rather special. Rated PG for some language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke