Akeelah and the Bee (2006) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for some language
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal, Sean Michael, Sahara Garey, Tzi Ma
Director: Doug Atchison
Screenplay: Doug Atchison
Review published August 18, 2006
Keke Palmer (Keke & Jamal, Madea's Family Reunion) plays Akeelah Anderson, an 11-year-old girl growing up in the crime-ridden streets of South-Central Los Angeles. Her father passed away five years ago, leaving her nearly unsupervised as her mother (Bassett, Mr. 3000) has to constantly work to support her children. Akeelah's school life is suffering, although she aces all her spelling tests, which catches the eye of her earnest principal, Mr. Welch (Armstrong, Ray), who wants to draw attention to his school in the hope that it will increase funding. With the help of an old friend, Mr. Larabee (Fishburne, Assault on Precinct 13), a one-time national spelling bee contestant, Akeelah begins her training for the big show -- if she doesn't cave from peer pressure, her home life, and her own natural fears.
When Akeelah and the Bee starts, a production screen pops up, telling us that the film was, at least in part, funded by Starbucks, possibly leaving many with the nervous feeling that it would be a two-hour advertisement. Thankfully, it's not.
This is a straight-forward feel-good drama, very much a typical underdog picture, adhering closely to the Karate Kid formula, where a poor kid has to put all personal issues aside, trusting the wisdom of a sage-like counselor, in order to be redeemed in the end in a contest with the rival representing the wrong way to teach kids how to be champions. Given the fact that the story is about Akeelah, it's pretty easy to guess where it's going, as anything less than having her there at the finale with a chance to win with one final word would never be allowed in such a commercial Hollywood release.
Although I did enjoy watching Akeelah and the Bee, I do think that it is a little bit frustrating that it tries to be cute and charming much more so than artistic and poignant. Writer-director Atchison (The Pornographer) had a chance to make a really great movie with this premise, instead of just an entertaining one, but he aims at easy targets to drive home all of his points. I'll at least give him credit for striking those targets with professional finesse, as the film does succeed on charm and likeability, bolstered by a very good cast of actors. It's hard to go wrong with Bassett and Fishburne, but it's Keke Palmer that really sells the movie, showing a naturalistic inner strength balanced with sweetness, leaving us little option but to root for Akeelah as she faces the most difficult challenge of her lifetime.
Despite its populist, often clichéd presentation, Akeelah and the Bee ultimately proves to be a well-made feel-good formula film that still raises interesting issues, while delivering a nice story told in competent fashion. While the destination of the film is never in doubt, the journey proves to be enjoyable enough for the film to strike home with most audiences.
©2006 Vince Leo