Akeelah and the Bee
Akeelah and the Bee musters up all the excitement it can about an underdog from the "hood spelling impossibly difficult words. Formulaic, yes, but an admirable effort.
Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is a precocious 11-year-old girl from South Central Los Angeles, who acts tough and skips school but can actually spell like the dickens. She gains the attention of the school"s principal (Curtis Armstrong), who wants her to represent the school at the regional spelling bee, but Akeelah balks, deeming it too lame for her. Slowly but surely, however, she realizes her potential, especially under the tutelage of a former English professor, Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). Now all she has to do is convince her mother (Angela Bassett) that her time isn"t being wasted, try to earn a coveted spot at the Scripps National Spelling Bee and get her neighborhood to rally round her. There"s even a local drug dealer helping Akeelah memorize words. How sweet.
What's Love Got to Do With It"s stars Fishburne and Bassett team up again to add instant credibility to the film. As Larabee, Sir Laurence sports his usual stern persona, pouring on the tough love as he gets Akeelah to realize she"s one smart cookie, even while dealing with his own personal turmoil. The always good Bassett also does a nice job as the overworked mother, just trying to do right by her kids. But the film rests squarely on little Palmer"s (Madea's Family Reunion) shoulders, and she handles the burden well as Akeelah. She shows every emotion on her expressive face, especially the concentration involved in spelling words like "pulchritude" and "prospicience" (look them up if don"t know what they mean; I had to).
Writer/director Doug Atchison makes a decent attempt at the sports genre. Akeelah is a lot like all the rest, but its also filled with plenty of heart and soul, which keeps the momentum going. And thanks to last year"s documentary Spellbound and indie film The Bee Season, Akeelah continues to shine light on the highly competitive spelling bees and the pressures it puts on its young contestants. But watching this film only reminded me of a better film of its ilk, Searching for Bobby Fischer--about a sweet little boy with a big open heart, who also happens to be a chess prodigy. Akeelah follows a very similar formula but lacks the flair and style Fischer possesses. Perhaps Atchison just needs a few more years experience.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.