Once again, thank goodness for Cable on Demand.
Akeelah and the Bee is the predicable, unrealistic and incredibly sweet story of a young girl (Keke Palmer) growing up in South Central Los Angeles who, against all odds, works her way through the national spelling bee circuit.
If you’ve ever watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee on television you know how outrageously cutthroat the competition can be. Elementary and middle school children train as hard as any Olympic athlete for a spot in the national competition in Washington D.C. They study Latin and Greek, many employ coaches as they train and learn how to spell thousands of words, often by rote.
Since Akeelah Anderson is from the ghetto she doesn’t have access to Latin or Greek classes. What she does have is a gift for spelling, something which brought her some comfort after her the death of her father. Her love of spelling doesn’t earn her much street cred, but it does get the attention of Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a college professor who recognizes her potential and agrees to be her coach.
The trouble is that while Akeelah is a brilliant speller, she is also spending a lot of time skipping class. As such she has to spend the summer catching up and going behind her mother Tanya’s (Angela Bassett) back. Tanya has a lot on her plate, she is a single parent and already has a son with one foot in prison. When Tanya learns about Akeelah’s failures in school she forbids Akeelah from competing in any more spelling bees.
During her adventures Akeelah meets a few interesting characters. When she starts hanging out with the kids on the spelling bee circuit she makes one special friend named Javier (J.R. Villarreal). Javier is a happy and laid-back kid who likes Akeelah enough to go to the mat for her when she needs him. She also meets her nemesis Dylan, an uptight kid with an uptight dad, both of whom are desperate for Dylan to place first in the bee this year.
As I said, Akeelah and the Bee is pretty predictable. No one in Akeelah’s neighborhood are very impressed with her success, but eventually they all pull together to help her train. Akeelah and Dr. Larabee find that they have a lot more in common than they realized, which makes Dr. Larabee question whether or not he can continue being her coach (I’ll let you figure out how that turns out). Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett pretty much resurrect their Boyz in the Hood roles as the wise father-figure and the stressed-out working mom, but I guess it works for them. I can’t really complain because their performances worked for me too (actually, all Laurence Fishburne has to do is show up to make it worth my while).
When I was reading up on this film there was a bit of flap about some of the racial stereotyping (uptight Dylan and his uptight dad are Asian). There was some discussion about a scene where Dylan’s father refers to Akeelah as a “little black girl”. I didn’t quite catch that, or maybe it was edited out. Still, the “Asian kid who has to kick academic butt” was a little over the top and unnecessary.
If you can get past the sap (and the preposterous ending), Akeelah and the Bee is a decent feel-good movie. Javier and Akeelah’s relationship is quite endearing, and who doesn’t love an underdog story. And just to make it perfect, look out for Booger from Revenge of the Nerds (Curtis Armstrong) as the Akeelah’s principal and Crab Man from My Name is Earl (Eddie Steeples) as the neighborhood thug with a heart.
Akeelah and the Bee is available on DVD.
Wendy R., Movie Correspondent:W endy’s column, “Family Flix“, published every Friday to Gather Essentials: Movies is your guide to family friendly movies, DVD’s, classics and new releases. Wendy R. is a mother of two and a film buff. All of her films are road-tested by an actual nine-year-old boy (ANYOB).
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