Akeelah and the Bee (Starbucks Entertainments first feature) is another feature focused on the tough and extremely vexing sport of competitive spelling better known as The Spelling Bee. Almost becoming a sub-genre of sorts, the most prominent of these eponymic features include the tense and awesome documentary Spellbound and the drama Bee Season with Richard Gere. It has a sort of unsettling charm in the idea of harried kids pushed into the spotlight for the most important thing (according to their parents and peers) that theyd ever do in their lives. It makes looking at that one nervous guy before final exams pale in comparison.
Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is the customary template for youngsters that break the environmental mold from which they come from. The perennial nurture vs. nature debate rages again as Akeelah finds herself pitted against privileged and wealthy kids her age that are all vying for the same prize. As shes an African-American girl who depends on her single mother, and looking out for her wayward siblings in a troubled neighbourhood, she also has the distinction of being the smartest girl in her middle school. She also has a prodigious affinity for words and the English language.
She spells these words magnificently, surprising everyone but her mother (Angela Bassett) whos too busy to notice. As incidents naturally leads to circumstance, she finds herself pushed to represent her disadvantaged school in the state Spelling Bee competition to not get left behind. Under the tutelage of Dr Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), she finds the necessary strength of character to raise her up from her inhibitions. Predictable right? Undoubtedly, it is. But therein lies its main draw. It does not deny what it is, which is a family drama thats inherently preachy and sugarcoated at the end. Beneath its sentimentalities is a film full up with heartfelt messages that are inspirational whether or not cynicisms get in the way of it. Its ardent conventionality needs the categorised supporting characters such as the well-meaning competitor and the Machiavellian adversary with a secret.
In many ways, Akeelah is lucky to be who she is. Non-descript characters come and go around her neighbourhood but its easily discernable that shes not as bad off as we are led to believe. Compared to her peers in Woodland Hills and Beverly Hills, shes just the little black girl but shes also the girl whos richer in the bank of love as it were. The alienation she feels at home in her neighbourhood is as potent as the alienation she feels shoved in the spotlight of Americas affluent. As she finds her place in one, she finds her place in the world by realising that winning is an important goal to have but having the courage to try is the real achievement.
Something admirable about writer-director Doug Atchisons pitch in crafting these social issues is that he doesnt raise class prejudices and racial stereotypes onto the pulpit but never waters down the issues by blatantly whitewashing it. He reinforces these stereotypes by lighting dapping them with observations and pragmatism but never creates caricatures of them. The formidable Fishburne and Bassett team seen in Boyz n the Hood and Whats Love Got To Do With It still exudes the intensity weve come to realise from the pairing. As the two central parental figures in Akeelahs life, they tear her down with their demons and prop her back up with their better angels. Keke Palmer must have given the best performance by a youngster this year with Akeelah. She upstages her more magnetic co-stars with erudite resilience having carried the entire film on her deceptively scrawny shoulders. She makes this film a testament to the potential of adolescents.
An unapologetically schmaltzy affair, Akeelah and the Bee is a film about messages. Its a homily about shaking free the shackles of apprehension through knowledge. By showing the willingness of people who want to change and see the potential that theyve lost in those around them, its ultimately about forgiving the misgivings of others and most importantly forgiving ones self. As far as feel good movies go, this one is a definite keeper and is definitely one of my favourites this year. I-n-d-u-b-i-t-a-b-l-y.