The second fictional drama in less than a year revolving around a young girl's journey to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, "Akeelah and the Bee" can also attest to being the better film. Whereas 2005's "Bee Season" was hurt by an overbearing lot of arbitrary subplots and some silly attempts at mysticism, "Akeelah and the Bee" presents a more accurate and focused account of what the experienceboth its highs and its lowsmight be like to devote most of one's time to studying for the bee and actually making it to the nationals. There are still a fair share of stumbling blocks on its way to the finale, but writer-director Doug Atchison smoothes over a tendency toward saccharine emotions by staying truthful to his characters and wearing his heart earnestly on his sleeve.
At ailing Crenshaw Middle School, located in a bad part of South Los Angeles, test scores have dropped to an all-time low and the faculty is at a loss for how they might be able to inspire their students to work harder. Their one shot of hope comes in the form of 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), who is coaxed into participating in the school's spelling bee after continuously receiving perfect scores on her tests and ends up winning. Akeelah loves to spell, but is disheartened by the teasing of her peers and a hardworking widowed mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), who doesn't seem to have to time to be bothered. As Akeelah starts getting tutored by inspirational former UCLA professor Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a man still grappling with his own demons from the past, she comes to discover that anything might be possible for her future if she wants it badly enough.
Sure enough, "Akeelah and the Bee" climaxes at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., pitting Akeelah against new friend Javier (J.R. Villarreal) and the closed-off Dylan (Sean Michael), runner-up two years in a row and lorded over by an overachieving father (Tzi Ma). Writer-director Doug Atchison hits all of the obvious plot points along the way, from a friend of Akeelah's who feels slighted when her time is taken up preparing for the bee, to a secret tragedy in Joshua Larabee's past that he must overcome, to the rocky relationship between Akeelah and her mother that ultimately leads them to finding common ground. Some of the picture's more maudlin interludes are hit-and-miss, especially the tired material involving Joshuabasically a copy of Robin Williams' psychiatrist from 1997's "Good Will Hunting."
Where the film excels is in its treatment of the plucky title character of Akeelah. As lovably played by Keke Palmer (2004's "Barbershop 2: Back in Business
"), Akeelah feels like a real 11-year-old whose life has been met with disappointments and discouraging surroundings. She also has a dead fatherwhy must practically every movie about a child have a deceased parent?but fortunately this detail is handled in a fair, natural way. Far from precocious, Akeelah is nonetheless an admirable young girl who could serve as a cinematic role model for all viewers with doubts about their abilities and second-guessing the possibilities that their futures hold. In other words, she isn't just worth rooting for, but undeniably deserves to be. Palmer is radiant and unaffected in the role, further rising to the occasion by genuinely appearing to have a passion and talent for spelling. The friendship/semi-romance that evolves between Akeelah and fellow speller Javier (a charming J.R. Villarreal) is appropriately low-key and exceedingly sweet in its innocence.
The third act, set at the National Spelling Bee, is welcome in its avoidance of the predictable, but finally becomes too much to handle. Relying on two surprise story developments, the first one deals with a tricky moralistic quandary that exceeds expectations and stays true to the intelligence running through the rest of the film. Regrettably, the second twist has a tacked-on air about it that sacrifices believability for an ending that is far too neat and tidy. The sappy strings of the music score shift into overdrive in this section, so bombastic with feel-goodery that it almost threatens to blow the viewer right out of the room. When it comes to the movie's last five minutes, less would have certainly been more.
Enriched by solid, accurately felt supporting turns from Angela Bassett (2004's "Mr. 3000
") and Laurence Fishburne (2005's "Assault on Precinct 13
") that ground Akeelah's everyday life in a non-cloying, albeit PG-rated, vision of coming-of-age in South Los Angeles, "Akeelah and the Bee" is a quality family picture without a hint of bathroom humor or slapstick to cheapen its involving character-based story. Imperfect as it may bethe film just misses the mark of being better than it is because of an increase in sugarcoated manipulation during the second half"Akeelah and the Bee" has enough strong points to remain a winning and suitably uplifting way to spend a couple hours.