At-Risk Adolescent Spells Her Way Straight in Inspirational Melodrama
Akeelah and the Bee
Rated PG for
Running time: 112 minutes
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Film Review by Kam Williams
Excellent (4 stars)
Although Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) once exhibited enough academic promise to skip the second grade, the previously precocious adolescent has been underachieving as of late. Despite being blessed with tremendous potential, the unmotivated 11 year-old has recently been behaving like a juvenile delinquent: skipping classes, speaking with slang and generally dumbing herself down just to be accepted by her best friend, Georgia (Sahara Garey), and her other classmates at her dilapidated school located in the heart of the ghetto in South Central Los Angeles.
As an at-risk kid, Akeelah frequently finds herself in trouble with Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), the principal of Crenshaw Middle School. Fortunately for her, he recognizes that the underlying problem is that there's been an absence of a real role model in Akeelah's life on a day-to-day basis since her father was murdered in cold blood five years ago.
Her mother (Angela Bassett) is well-meaning, but simply too busy working to keep a roof over the family's head to pay much attention. Meanwhile, her big sister, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), is a teenage-mom with a newborn baby, and her big brother, Devon (Lee Thompson Young), is presently a paratrooper in the Air Force.
Akeelah's fondest childhood memory is of playing Scrabble with her father, a practice which she has secretly continued alone on her computer and which explains why she's something of a spelling savant. Aware of this untapped talent, Principal Welch prods his budding prodigy to enter the school's spelling bee, attended by Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a tweedy English professor and ex-spelling champ himself.
After Akeelah wins easily, she's encouraged to prepare for the citywide competition with the goal of qualifying for the Scripps National Bee in Washington, D.C. But she balks, asking, ’Why would anybody want to represent a school that can't even put doors on its bathroom stalls?’ Plus, she knows she’ll be competing with rich white kids whose parents can afford coaches.
Conveniently, Dr. Larabee not only resides right in the ’hood is, but he also happens to be on sabbatical and is thus available to whip Akeelah into world-class spelling shape, ala The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi. Like Miyagi, Larabee is a no-nonsense disciplinarian with a green thumb who's in mourning.
As they prepare for the big day, Akeelah find a spelling nemesis in Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael), an Asian kid from across the tracks whose overbearing father wants to win more than his son. But she makes a friend from upscale Woodland Hills, too, in Javier (J.R. Villarreal), a less-competitive flirt who invites her to his birthday party.
When Crash arrived in theaters almost exactly a year ago, I remarked in my review that it was easily the best picture released in 2005 to that point. The same can be said for this crowd-pleaser. Any parents wondering why they don't make wholesome family flicks anymore can stop wondering. Without ever hitting a false note, and pausing for a few lighter moments along the way, this touching tale shares a bounty of uplifting messages while taking you on an emotional roller coaster ride guaranteed to leave you wiping away the tears, and on more than one occasion.