(Lionsgate) Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal, Sean Michael, Sahara Garey, Tzi Ma, Eddie Steeples. Directed by Doug Atchison.
Often, we attribute courage to doing something beyond our means of doing, but taking it on anyway. Certainly, that takes a particular sort of fortitude, but there is a different type of courage, one that involves doing what you can do, at a moment when it is difficult to do it. It’s a less glamorous sort of bravery, much quieter than the other, but no less real.
What 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson (Palmer) can do is spell. She’s really, really good at it. She plays Scrabble incessantly on her computer. It is a means of connecting with her dad, who was murdered when she was six. It is a harsh reality but by no means an unusual one in South Central Los Angeles, where she lives. At night, she hears the sirens and the police helicopters; by day, she sees the gangbangers crouched low in their low-slung cars, low men in basketball jerseys. Stephen King would have recognized the type.
Akeelah is good at spelling, but she hides her bright light under a bushel basket. At Crenshaw Middle School, good can get you laughed at. Good can get you beat up. Good can get you isolated from everyone, and when you live in a war zone, you can’t afford to go it alone. At Crenshaw, it’s much safer to blend in and be invisible. Excellence isn’t a ticket out per se, but a ticket to a badge of ridicule.
A new principal, Mr. Welch (Armstrong) is trying to change things. The scores at Crenshaw continue to decline despite everyone’s best efforts, and funds for everything is tight. Still, he knows he has to come up with new and inventive ways to motivate these kids to achieve. He institutes a school spelling bee, part of the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. The winner will go to the regional bee for L.A. County, while the ten best from that will go to the district bee for Southern California, and the three best from that will head to Washington D.C. for the national final. Welch, perhaps a bit over-ambitiously, wants to see a Crenshaw student make it to the finals.
To that end, he’s enlisted an old college buddy, Dr. Larabee (Fishburne) to help coach. Larabee, on sabbatical from his job teaching literature at UCLA, is not enthusiastic, but he does live in the neighborhood and was a national finalist himself back in the day, so he agrees to help.
Akeelah isn’t very enthusiastic either. Go in front of the whole school and spell? She might as well paint a target on her back. Then, she sees the national finals on ESPN and realizes that this is something she can do. She’s still a bit wary but is basically blackmailed into it by Principal Welch. Of course, she wins the school bee easily and Dr. Larabee, who can see something in her that he can work with, agrees to coach her for the nationals.
It isn’t easy. Akeelah has a lot of attitude and not a lot of support at home. Her mom (Bassett) has her hands full being a single mom with a son who is sliding towards a gang lifestyle, a daughter who left school after getting pregnant and Akeelah, who has been skipping classes. Talk of a spelling bee is foolish; she needs to concentrate on her studies. She continues to study behind her mom’s back and manages to scrape by the regionals by the skin of her teeth. There, she befriends Javier (Villarreal), a Mexican-American kid whose father is a noted journalist and author; he’s attending a much wealthier school with the kind of facilities Akeelah can’t even begin to dream of. She also meets Dylan (Michael), an Asian-American kid from the same school who is cold, driven and pushed to winning by his father (Ma) who’s seen his son finish as runner-up at the national event twice; this will be Dylan’s last shot at it. As Akeelah gains more success, she finds that rather than getting humiliated, she is getting venerated. The whole neighborhood is behind her and in fact she is becoming something of a local celebrity. Still, the pressure is taking a terrible toll on Akeelah. Her best friend (Garey) won’t talk to her anymore, and Dr. Larabee has abruptly – and curtly – told her she has learned everything she needs from him and basically tosses her into the lake to swim or drown. As you can guess, this is an inspirational movie. You know it is going to end on a high note, but quite frankly how it arrives there and the nature of the high it finishes on is clever and well-done. Writer/director Atchison has done a marvelous job with this story, investing us in Akeelah’s fears and needs yet never talking down to us. It is certainly an afro-centric movie in that it consists of mostly Afro-American characters and quotes mostly Afro-American thinkers but it isn’t just for that community; Akeelah is a character anyone can relate to.
Much of the credit for that must go to Keke Palmer. This is a movie that she must carry and she does it so well that you wonder if Dakota Fanning could have done it any better (the answer: no). She is bright, charismatic but vulnerable and just such a good role model that you can’t help but cheer for her. When I say she’s a role model, that’s not to say she’s too good to be true; as a matter of fact, she does the wrong thing from time to time, but her instincts are to do the right thing and she tends to make the right choice. It’s actually fun watching her blossom, from a shy, frightened little girl into a self-confident spelling champion.This is a movie that moves to a specific rhythm, and it is a timeless beat. Akeelah and the Bee succeeds because you wind up liking Akeelah Anderson. While the other characters in it are solid (Fishburne and Bassett are solid as always, and who’d have thought Booger from Revenge of the Nerds could act?) you will leave this movie remembering Keke Palmer. You will also leave with a warm feeling, and that’s not half bad. You probably won’t leave the movie wanting to spell any better, but it’s a good bet that if you leave the movie wanting to be like Akeelah, that would be a very good thing.
WHY RENT THIS: In a word, Keke Palmer. While ostensibly about the situation in South Central, it is a story anyone can relate to. Solid supporting cast bulwarks this inspirational tale.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A movie about a spelling bee is almost slow-moving by definition.
FAMILY VALUES: Highly recommended for young teens; suitable for any audiences however.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The character of Dr. Larabee is based on director Atchison’s real-life teacher Mr. Larabell.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video of Palmer singing “All My Girlz” which appears on the soundtrack.
FINAL RATING: 7/10