There's just something about spelling bees that fascinates me beyond all reasonable attraction. Maybe it's because I'm about as likely to be able to spell the words these kids take on as I am to hit a home run off Curt Schilling.
It's this fascination that, at least for me, managed to lift "Akeelah and the Bee" above all the calculated cliches thrown at it by writer-director Doug Atchison and make it an immensely entertaining flick.
Much of this is thanks to young Keke Palmer, who shows a genuine geekiness (smart geek, not Napoleon geek) we haven't seen in a long time, and Laurence Fishburne, who channels a lot of Morpheus as the zen master/spelling guru who leads the way.
If you can't guess from the title, the story is about 11-year-old Akeelah (Palmer), who rises from Crenshaw Middle School to compete at the National Spelling Bee. Along the way, Atchison shows remarkable restraint in telling her story: He establishes quickly what we all know, that Keke's neighborhood doesn't exactly foster academic excellence, and focuses tightly on the story of Keke and her mentor, former UCLA professor Dr. Joshua Larabee (Fishburne, better than he's been in years.)
Don't get me wrong; we've seen this many, many times before (hopefully you've all managed to forget "Finding Forrester.") What sets "Akeelah" apart is a certain infectious spirit.
There's actually a comment on the IMDB that starts out "Anyone who doesn't like this movie is probably a racist." Well, at least they said "probably." I'm not gonna touch that one, I'll just say that I haven't cheered so much for a character so calculated to be likable as Keke Palmer in a long time. Atchison films the competitions with a real visual flair, using the event's inherent intensity to full advantage.
It does drag quite a bit in parts. As Akeelah and the professor are training, he has to confront the requisite demons that slow things to a halt. Thankfully, the main training montage was set to the Spinners' "Rubberband Man," a song that just makes me smile every time I hear it.
Along the way, you'll see some familiar and friendly faces. Curtis Armstrong, who will still always be best known as "Booger," is just earnest enough as Keke's principal, Earl's "Crabman" Eddie Steeples plays a vaguely menacing neighborhood hood and Angela Bassett (I couldn't remember the last time I had seen her) plays Keke's mother.
After the National Spelling Bee finale that will leave even some of the least cynical among us cringing, a final voice-over from Akeelah let's us know what this was all about. It's agenda filmmaking with a simple message: If we let an entire generation of kids slip away simply because they live in a horrible neighborhood, we're all to blame.
I thought about that as the credits were rolling, until they reached the end of the cast list and I just had to smile again. Several of the kids are identified simply by the words they spelled. This one is just that geeky, and that makes it a joy to watch.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Posted by Reel Fanatic at 6:54 AM