Keke Palmer as Akeelah Anderson
Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Joshua Larabee
Angela Bassett as Tanya Anderson
Curtis Armstrong as Mr. Welch
Eddie Steeples as Derrick-T
J.R. Villarreal as Javier
Erica Hubbard as Kiana Anderson
Lee Thompson Young as Devon
Tzi Ma as Mr. Chiu
Sahara Garey as Georgia
Sean Michael as Dylan
Sara Niemietz as Polly
George Hornedo as Roman
Lee Garlington as Regional Judge
Marjorie Harris as Head Judge
Jeff Marlow as District Judge
Julito McCullum as Terrence
Lance Norling as Boy in Wheelchair
Julia Kelleher as Tall Speller
Zac Gardner as Cute Speller
Jack Ong as Korean Grocer
Dalia Phillips as Ms. Cross
Craig Wasson as Ted Saunders
Directed by Doug Atchison
After a shaky set-up, “Akeelah and the Bee” turns into a real crowd-pleaser, mostly due to its talented young star, Keke Palmer, who brings the best out of the rest of the cast and really knows how to win over her audience.
Akeelah Anderson (Keke Parker), an 11-year-old girl whose father died forcing her mother to work double shifts to keep the family afloat, has a knack for spelling. When she wins her shool spelling bee, she’s paired with a retired college professor (Laurence Fishburne) to help her train for the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, but first, they’ll have to overcome a lot of obstacles.
You might get some idea what to expect from “Akeelah and the Bee” from watching the trailer, but if you think it’s going to be the same formulaic poor-kid-does-good movie we’ve seen so many times before, then you may be pleasantly surprised. Somewhere along the way, the film turns into a solid drama with rich characters and enough charm to make it one of the better family films released in the last few months.
It takes a while to get there though, and you have to endure a bit of set-up first: Akeelah is an outcast at school, picked on at school by a couple of bullies, but she’s a sharp kid who plays scrabble on her computer for fun. When she wins her school spelling bee, her principal sees her potential and pairs her with Dr. Larabee, a crusty retired college professor. Of course, the feisty Akeelah is not used to rules and discipline, and they butt heads at first, but her drive to win the State Spelling Bee and go onto the Nationals in Washington forces her to work with Larabee. The world of spelling bees is very new to her, but soon, she befriends Javier, a student at a prestigious school where they strive for spelling bee champions like Devon Chiu, an Asian kid who came in second at the previous National Championship.
The first half hour of the movie seems filled with the type of “urban” stereotypes that have been done to death: Overworked mother, older brother hanging with the wrong crowd, best friend who is jealous of Akeelah’s success. When Laurence Fishburne enters the picture and starts condescending to Akeelah, you wonder if he’ll be offering her red and blue pills or training her in martial arts, rather than spelling. Even the coincidence that Akeelah just happens to turn the TV on at the exact time and channel as the National Spelling Bee is broadcast makes it hard to take the movie very seriously, at first.
Then suddenly, as if filmmaker Doug Atchison realized that his movie needed to go off the beaten path, it transitions into a full and rich drama showing Akeelah’s growth as a person through her hard work at improving her spelling. Characters that began as stereotypes start showing new levels of depth, as we see how the people around Akeelah deal with her newfound fame including a few expected scenes like Akeelah confronting her brother and his criminal friend Derrick-T. By the end, both of them are trying to help Akeelah prepare for her trip to Washington, as she’s embraced by her community.
Of course, the best parts of the movie are the spelling bees themselves where a lot of creative license is used to make sure that Akeelah gets onto the next round. Sometimes it gets cheesy, like when Akeelah mimes jumping rope at the National Bee to remember an important word, but still, these scenes are genuinely funny and entertaining. Of course, there’s the usual fun of laughing at the contestants when they misspell a word, but it seemed cruel to show some poor boy in a wheelchair being buzzed so callously.
The reason the film works so well is that Keke Parker is a talented young actress, able to keep you interested in her story by behaving like a real kid, rather than the typical movie brat we’ve seen too many times before. Her onscreen presence isn’t any more evident than when she has scenes opposite Fishburne and she refuses to let herself be overshadowed by the more experienced actor. Early “Morpheusims” aside, Fishburne rises to the challenge of playing opposite a pre-teen, giving a strong performance, especially once we learn why Larabee is so eager to help Akeelah.
The movie’s true scene-stealer is young J.R. Villarreal playing Akeelah’s new friend Javier. The duo have a lot of great scenes together but Javier tends to offer the film’s best laughs with a lot of well-timed comic relief during the spelling bees. Sadly, Angela Bassett is not that great as Akeelah’s overworked mother, tending to needlessly overplay the role to create more drama, although her reactions to her daughter’s desire to excel in the spelling bees seems misplaced. She ends up coming across as the movie’s antagonist, which isn’t a very good message.
The nicest surprise is seeing Curtis Armstrong AKA Booger from the “Revenge of the Nerd” movies, as Akeelah’s principal. Between his strong performance here, following his portrayal of record mogul Ahmet Ertegun in “Ray,” he’s on his way to becoming the next character actor to be taken more seriously ala Paul Giamatti.
The real problem with this kind of movie is that if you’ve seen enough of them, you instinctively know that Akeelah will either win the National Spelling Bee or she’ll intentionally lose but learn a valuable life lesson, get the respect of her mother, etc. The reason why “Akeelah and the Bee” finally won me over after my initial reticence was that in the expected final face-off between Akeelah and Devon, they didn’t go for the obvious ending. It threw me for such a pleasant loop that I couldn’t help but applaud their efforts.
The Bottom Line:
“Akeelah and the Bee” is a wonderful, well-made film that starts out shaky, but then quickly wins you over with its combination of heart and charm. Sure, it often tries too hard to tug at the heartstrings, but you’d have to be fairly cold and cynical not to eventually give in.