What AKEELAH AND THE BEE offers is a sweet, unpretentious, and positive affirmation in the very best sense of that phrase. While the specifics are the struggles of a kid from the ‘hood to make it to the national spelling bee, at heart, and it has a lot of heart, it’s about learning to be the very best person you can be, both to yourself and to those around you. This is a formula film, no doubt about it, but one that uses the formula as a framework, not a crutch
The eponymous heroine is an 11-year-old at Crenshaw Middle School in south Los Angeles. It barely has money for textbooks, but it does have Mr. Welch (cuddly and passionate Curtis Armstrong), the principal who believes in the potential of the kids who go there. Particularly Akeelah Anderson, a spelling prodigy with a penchant for Scrabble who is treated like a freak by most of her classmates, who accuse her of being a braniac while at the same time trying to coerce her into doing their homework for them. With a little encouragement, including detention for all the classes she’s cut if she refuses, Welch gets her to sign up for Crenshaw’s first ever spelling bee. She aces it to the taunts of some of the kids in the audience and the attention of Mr. Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne, who also produced), an enigmatic UCLA professor, old friend of Welch’s and former Bee contender, who agrees to coach her for the upcoming rounds leading to national. For once, Akeelah becomes part of a world where she feels she belongs, with her talent appreciated and kids just like her. Mostly.
The film examines more than just Akeelah’s intensive training in language, though that is the lynchpin. It starts with Larrabee’s prohibition on her using any word not in the dictionary and moves on to the study of Latin, Greek, and classic essays, thereby feeding passion for words she learns rather than turning her into a robot. That’s the way Larrabee describes Akeelah’s chief competitor, Dylan, whose father pushes him hard and never applauds him during the competitions or in private. There is a subtle wedge driven between Akeelah and one true friend from the neighborhood, who doesn’t see how she fits into Akeela’s new life and new friends, including Javier (J. R. Villarreal), a charmer of a kid with a sophisticated vocabulary and a stellar sense of style on and off the competition stage. The biggest gulf, though, is between Akeelah and her mother (Angela Basset), a woman hardened by widowhood, too much work, and a son who may be heading down the wrong path. They’ve been strangers in the same house for years, not really understanding each other and, with the mother projecting all her fears rather than her hopes on her daughter.
A different sort of gulf exists between Akeelah and Larrabee. He is always at a distinct remove, even in the heat of teaching, emotionally as remote as her mother, but not nearly as hardened. For each, the experience of Akeelah’s journey to the national bee becomes a way of connecting with life itself as well as the little girl at the center of it all.
What makes the film work despite a familiar story that hits all the necessary tropes on its way to a nail-biter of a finale is the fine writing and first-rate performances by all involved. Basset and Fishburne bring both their gravitas and considerable presence to roles that might otherwise play as hopeless clichés. It’s Keke Palmer as Akeelah, though, that holds it all together. She’s a real kid on screen, unaffected, unprecocious, but irresistible with a genuine sense of the sorts of insecurities that kids that age have, and the overwhelming drive and capacity for joy that they also have. When Akeelah has conversations with the picture of her dead father that she keeps over her desk, there is a palpable sense of the sadness at work as well as the tenaciousness that keeps him a presence in the girl’s life. For that reason, when the camera flits through the living rooms of people from the entire community rooting for Akeelah, each in their own particular idiom, as she compete at nationals, it tugs on heart strings because of who she is, and because of the irreverent take on those idioms. The direction is noteworthy as well, in this and with heart-stopping moments during the competitions that are smartly edited without being flashy.
AKEELAH AND THE BEE is a small gem. It’s positive, gentle, and ultimately uplifting without ever making its audience feel overly manipulated. Or at least, no more manipulated that it’s willing to be. There’s some welcome steel to the story that keeps it from being a fairy tale, but doesn’t prevent it from being magical.