Akeelah and the Bee
2006Director: Doug Atchison
Cast: Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett
he opening credits of Akeelah and the Bee include a logo for Starbucks Entertainment. What is Starbucks Entertainment and why does it exist? Here's what I found on Wikipedia: "Starbucks recently entered the film business. Starbucks Entertainment is one of the producers of the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. Retail stores heavily advertised the film before its release." Okay, then. Not a bad idea, really, for the humongous coffee chain to get into the movie industry. Think of all the aspiring actors, writers, directors, etc. that work behind Starbucks counters. Might as well make use of these people.
Starbucks contributed little to the film besides its considerable marketing clout. (A copy editor for the Boston Herald beat me to the obvious pun: "Starbucks spells buzz for Akeelah.") The movie is apparently being groomed for early-summer sleeper status, a harmless and inspirational alternative for anyone not interested in seeing Tom Cruise run from explosions, or mutants shooting lasers, or whatever, out of their eyes. It's hard to argue with the film's intentions, and it's easy to root for a movie that’s heart is obviously in the right place, even while it so often fails to transcend the numerous trappings that befall its story.
Keke Palmer delivers a strong performance as the title character, an 11-year-old girl from South Los Angeles with a knack for spelling, which, like any remarkable academic gift possessed by a student in the public school system, is more often a curse than a blessing. Think of The Incredibles, a scathing social commentary in a family film's clothing. The Pixar movie suggested public education, and society at large, represses exceptional individuals under the guise of not leaving weaker ones behind, pushing every student through the meat grinder at the expense of the gifted. This creates the upsetting paradox of an education system in which intelligent students are sentenced to be overlooked by teachers and ostracized by their peers. Akeelah is well on her way to being ground into institutional sausage, until after seeing the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN (I looked it up; they do broadcast this on ESPN), she decides to try it competitively. That, and her principal—played by Curtis Armstrong (yes, that's Booger from Revenge of the Nerds)—threatens her with detention if she does not enter a regional spelling bee.
Of course, she enters and, of course, wins. Since Akeelah is fatherless, the plot requires a mentor figure to appear. Laurence Fishburne, one of the film's producers, supplies the necessary, what's the word, gravitas, as Dr. Larabee, a former professor who spends most of his time gardening, because he's haunted. He agrees to coach Akeelah and—after a variety of montages in which she proves her spelling ability through sports-movie techniques—we learn he had a daughter, now dead, who was about Akeelah's age. Fancy that. Grab the tissues for the entirely predictable scene in which he realizes he's substituted Akeelah for the memory of his daughter, and that Akeelah, in turn, regards him as her father.
Bad parenting abounds. Akeelah's mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), tries to prevent her from participating in spelling bees for the usual reasons. Sure, a lot of extracurricular activities can interfere with academics. But spelling? Akeelah is assigned a rival, a veteran speller named Dylan (Sean Michael), who is forced into it by an overbearing father (Tzi Ma) who pushes his child as retribution for his own failures. For other examples of this, see any movie that involves young people and competition.
Akeelah, Dylan, and Akeelah's love interest, Javier (J.R. Villarreal), all make the national finals. News reporters begin tracking Akeelah's story, because, somehow, the entire city of Los Angeles has united in support of her run to the spelling championship. (I find it hard to believe no kid from L.A. has ever made the national bee finals.) The ending contains of couple of nice surprises, but otherwise, the film buckles under the steadily mounting weight of its cliches. It almost, almost gets by on cuteness alone, but writer/director Doug Atchison is pretty bald in his intentions to capitalize on the lingering fascination with spelling bees (Spellbound, Bee Season, etc.) by structuring a painfully normal sports movie around it. Your word is formulaic: F-O-R-M-U-L-A-I-C. Formulaic.
Akeelah and the Bee is in theaters across the country now.
By: Troy Reimink
Published on: 2006-05-09