Akeelah and the Bee plays like Rocky crossed with Good Will Hunting. The latest in a string of spelling bee movies—is there a stranger genre—and coming hot on the heels of the hit documentary Spellbound and the drama Bee Season, Akeelah and the Bee is a story designed to make you cheer for the underdog.
Akeelah is a shy young girl from South Central Los Angeles who has a gift for spelling. It seems her late father had instilled in her a love of language and word games—don’t bet against her in a Scrabble match—but she tries to keep her etymologic endowment a secret in school, explaining that if she appears to be too smart the only word she’ll have to know how to spell is n-e-r-d. With some encouragement from her principal—the guy who played Booger in the Revenge of the Nerds movies—she enters the school’s spelling bee. After an easy win at her school she takes on a tutor—the brusque Lawrence Fishburne—a former champ who trains her for the national bee.
Akeelah and the Bee is a sentimental story that occasionally feels over calculated, as though writer / director Doug Atchison is trying to cram every after school special cliché into one story—we have the virtues of hard work, good sportsmanship, following one’s dreams and of course the ever popular love conquers all, to name just a few. The story is emotionally uncomplicated, some of the characters come directly from central casting, and it doesn’t have the clout of Spellbound but there are a couple of elements that elevate this movie, making it worthy of a big screen treatment.
Clichés aside the movie does have good messages for young people. Akeelah starts her journey as a shy young girl and gradually gains confidence in her abilities and learns to trust not only herself, but also those around her. Her character teaches kids that they can opt for any path in life, and work towards any destination they choose.
The movie’s secret weapon is Keke Palmer as the wonderful wordsmith. Palmer is a natural talent who brings new life to a character that we’ve seen on-screen many times. Her performance is so guileless that it really feels like you are watching a real kid working through Akeelah’s issues. Her authentic sensitivity blunts some of the more obvious emotional manipulations and earns the film a recommendation.
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