"Akeelah and the Bee" is a great film for everyone in the entire family. I defy you, or anyone you see this film with to not be moved by the story.
Akeelah (Keke Palmer), a student at Crenshaw Middle School, in South Los Angeles, is bored with her school. Her teachers recognize her intelligence; she gets good grades, but her attendance and attitude are lacking. The school hosts its first Spelling Bee and the Principal (Curtis Armstrong) insists Akeelah participate. After she trounces the competition, she attracts the attention of Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a professor on sabbatical and former contestant in the National Spelling Bee who agrees to coach Akeelah. But her mother (Angela Bassett) is too distracted to notice her daughter is going to the City Spelling Bee and then the Regionals. Soon, Akeelah has the entire community rooting for her and helping her, pushing her to win the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC.
Yes, the film is predictable and, at times, a little sappy. But the performance of Keke Palmer as Akeelah quickly makes you forget about the few problems the film has. Akeelah is like many middle school students; afraid to show how intelligent she is because she will be teased by other students, she purposely dumbs herself down in public situations. This is unfortunate, but it happens. When she receives an `A' on a spelling test, she quickly hides the paper, afraid some of the mean girls will find out. She doesn't want to participate in the school's Bee because she wants to remain under the radar. Sure enough, at the Bee, two girls stand in back and heckle Akeelah. So far, we are really talking about a TV Movie of the Week caliber performance. Then we learn more about Akeelah. We learn about her relationship with her mother and father, her older brothers, how she challenges herself at home, why she does this. She has to put up a front to survive in the school and the area where she lives. But at home, she is free to play Scrabble against a computer, or to study flash cards. Also, we soon learn why she isn't the best student and it all makes sense. She is a complicated young lady and Palmer does a great job of making her believable. It is a very good performance from someone so young.
Fishburne is the other major character, and he is very good. There is a lot resting below the surface of Dr. Larabee. As he reluctantly decides to coach the young lady, he admonishes her against using slang and ghetto talk. As soon as he says this, and she realizes he is serious, she effortlessly begins using proper English. But why does he seem to have a grudge against the community where he lives? As they move forward with the coaching, Larabee becomes more withdrawn, and eventually tells Akeelah that he has done all he can, giving his young prot?g? a feeling of abandonment. She is confused and doesn't feel like continuing. Then Akeelah's mom (Angela Bassett) pays a visit and learns more about his reasons. Both Akeelah and Dr. Larabee have had very similar experiences, leading to their respective attitudes. When you realize the reasons behind Larabee's behavior, it suddenly all makes sense. His character has many layers and part of the journey is unraveling them.
Bassett has, perhaps, the most difficult role. She is a single mom, trying to keep track of a son who is getting mixed up with gangs. When Akeelah comes home and announces that she will be going to the National Spelling Bee, her mom is concerned about her school work. Because of the previous attendance problem, Akeelah is told she has to go to summer school. This is all her mom can process, she can't even realize Akeelah has a chance to win a NATIONAL SPELLING BEE; she doesn't even have the chance to process what this is. When she finally realizes her daughter might win this contest, her reaction is very natural. She doesn't immediately gush and become a doting mother; she is initially hurt her daughter lied to her. Once she reconciles this, she helps and encourages her daughter.
The performances are good because they convey what life is like for these characters without falling into stereotypes. Yes, they live in a drug and gang filled area, but Akeelah's mom works as a nurse, and struggles with her oldest son. Akeelah is smart, but can't show it too much at school, if she wants to remain "normal". Dr. Larabee lives in the community he has lived all his life, despite some problems. Each of the actors provides a vivid portrayal of a three dimensional character.
As she begins to study for the Bee, she also meets other people outside of her community. She becomes friends with Javier (J.R. Villareal), a student from Woodland Hills who placed 13th in the previous year's National Bee. As their friendship grows, she spends more time with him and his family, traveling to the more affluent suburb, recognizing how lacking her neighborhood and school are. At one point, she says "Why would I want to represent the school I hate?" We soon learn she has a poor attendance record and problems in school because she is bored, not because she is dumb. Because she is bored, she has no motivation.
Generally, in a film like this, you can predict the outcome. But the filmmakers have managed to throw a nice little twist into the final scene, making it all the more interesting, exciting and emotional.
My one complaint for the film is the production quality is a little low. Clearly, the film was made on an independent budget and, at times, looks like it would be more at home as a Television Movie of the Week. Compare this film to the recent "Bee Season" which is also about a young lady going to the National Spelling Bee, and you will see two films that look very different. "Season" was produced by a major production company and looks like a big studio film; glossy, perfectly lit, beautiful. "Akeelah" is a bit duller looking and doesn't appear as polished. This is a small complaint and I only make it because it is unfair to "Akeelah", the better film. More money was probably spent on Richard Gere's salary for "Season" than the entire budget of "Akeelah". That's a shame, because the message of "Akeelah" is so much more universal, uplifting and encouraging.
Take everyone you know to see "Akeelah and the Bee". You will all enjoy it and the film might just help someone get past a hurdle they have been struggling with for a long time.