Akeelah and the Bee (Doug Atchison, 2006)
Eleven-year old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) has a gift for words. It's probably genetic: her dad (who was shot to death when she was a little girl) plays scrabble, probably with expertise. Ever since her dad's death, she, and her two brothers, have been kept alive by her overworking mother (Angela Bassett). The gift for words isn't exactly a boon to Akeelah. She usually gets A's in her spelling tests; A's she would quickly hide out of embarrassment. Crenshaw, her South L.A. public school, isn't really the school where you can brag your intellectual achievements. Mediocrity pervade the educational system; bullies would terrorize those who achieve or scoff at any notion that someone is excelling in something.
Akeelah and the Bee is the story of Akeelah's journey from being the closet gifted speller to the champion of the Scripps Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.. The story isn't exactly original. You've seen it before, in many different shapes. The Sister Act films showed unlikely chorale singers succeed to impress non-believers. Director Ron Howard has a few of these films under his belt (most of which would undeservedly win numerous awards): A Beautiful Mind (2001), last year's Cinderella Man (2005). Like all the cited films, Akeelah would have to face all the adversities (her lower middle-class neighborhood, her bullies, her rapper-wannabe brother, the Korean-American rival) in her life to reach her goals.
Of course, she doesn't do it alone. She gets help from university professor Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne) who is also hiding a painful tragedy in his life. In one of the spelling bee competitions, she meets Javier (J. R. Villareal), overly friendly spelling bee competitor and Latino lover-in-the-making. It's all very formulaic which might be the reason why it's also quite harmless as opposed to the other fictional spelling bee film that got released after the hit doc Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002). Bee Season (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2005) has a dysfunctional family struggling to repair itself while its main character, a speller, goes about winning bee after bee; it's directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel has other thing in mind other than the rote satisfaction of success against adversity. They would delve into philosophy and the supernatural linkages of spelling and life. Akeelah and the Bee seems very safe and trite in comparison.
Everything falls into place. Director Doug Atchison knows his material is Hallmark-quality fluff and directs it as such. The film looks satisfyingly polished. There's an abundance of generic preachiness; the film quotes a lot from Mandela and Dr. Larabee seems persistent on incorporating greatness in the simplicity of spelling and word deconstruction. It all feels very fuzzy and nice. The niceness is upped by Keke Palmer's surprisingly good performance (if a little girl upstages more experienced thesps Fishburne and Bassett, you do know she's special or that the screenplay has been unfairly underwritten for the supporting cast). Overall, Akeelah and the Bee is embarrassingly cute --- spelling bees, little kids stealing kisses from little girls, whole neighborhoods (the gang banger neighborhood, at that) rallying behind the unlikely champion. Atchison seems to want something deeper from the entire bee business, but his sugar-coated confection can barely rise beyond its genre to say anything out of the ordinary.