Akeelah and the Bee (PG)
Spelling proves to be the cure to a whole host of socioeconomic ills in the uplifting and yet still moderately entertaining Akeelah and the Bee.
Akeelah (Keke Palmer) has all the standard kid-from-the-wrong-side-of-town problems. Her father died violently when she was still young. Her mother Tanya (Angela Bassett) is overworked and too worried about the signs of beginning criminality in Akeelah's brother to send much time encouraging academic growth. Akeelah's older teenage sister already has a baby of her own. Her older brother is succeeding (military is putting him through college) but isn't around enough to be as supportive as Akeelah needs. She's growing up in a lousy neighborhood with a lackluster school that's long on urban problems but short on special perks such as Latin classes.
Why, it's never even had a student attend the regional spelling bee. Principal Welch (Curtis Armstrong) hopes to get his school some attention (and perhaps some additional funding) by getting a student bee-bound. And even though Akeelah has a history of skipping class, her perfect scores on spelling tests convince Welch that she's a born bee champ.
Akeelah easily wins the school's spelling bee, in spite of being embarrassed at the nerdy nature of such an achievement, but isn't ready to win the regionals, says Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburn). A one-time competitor at the national bee himself, Larabee is an on-sabbatical English teacher who agrees to coach Akeelah for the bee if she will agree to study his way - learning words' roots and derivations and devoting hours to bee preparation.
Though Akeelah is 160 pounds of sass in an 80-pound body, she decides to take Larabee as a coach after she nearly loses the southern California bee. Before you can say "wax on, wax off," Larabee has her jumping rope while she spells multi-syllabic words Will Short would have a hard time spelling.
Of course, it's not all upbeat training montages and motivational quotes. For one thing, Tanya's not so sure she supports all this spelling bee stuff. Though it is at the urging of Akeelah's school, the bee and bee preparation get in the way of her studies, Akeelah's mom says. And then there's the class component. The first match after the school's bee is in Beverly Hills where Akeelah meets and competes with kids from other tony Southern California neighborhoods. There is an underlying current of fear in the film, fear that a kid from Crenshaw really can't stack up to a kid from Rodeo Drive. But Akeelah enjoys hanging out with these nerdy well-to-do kids, even developing a nascent puppy crush with a fellow speller named Javier (J.R. Villarreal) (it fits with Akeelah's we-shall-overcome world view that the top spellers include a charming Hispanic boy and a honorable, down-to-Earth Chinese-American kid). But this fact causes some problems with her old friends back home.
Akeelah and the Bee is relentlessly positive - girl-positive, nerd-positive, success-for-all-positive. It is a credit to Dough Atchison, the film's writer and director, that all this goodness and positivity never makes the film unbearable. Someone less skilled easily could have had us suffocating in so much good will.
As it is, Akeelah and the Bee is only sort-of too much. It is the filmatic equivalent of whole wheat bread - aggressively good for us but still usually enjoyable. B-
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