“Akeelah and the Bee” is likely to sneak up on you and win you over completely. You haven’t seen this one before; you haven’t known these finely drawn characters, and the story is not predictable. Though the movie succeeds largely because of the subtle and original performance of Keke Palmer, the collaboration of Palmer, Angela Bassett, and Laurence Fishburne is what takes the film beyond the limits of a spelling bee. The audience loved this movie, and it deserves to be seen widely.
Last year’s documentary “Spellbound” covered the same ground and was both less pleasant and more interesting in its reality. We learned there about yet another interesting sub-culture of America – the spelling bee, its costs and rewards, and we learned too about the diversity of the people who turn their lives over to it. The young contestants, propelled by backgrounds as diverse as their motivations, followed a punishing road to the finals in Washington D.C., leading us through triumphs, defeats, and family problems. The movie also highlighted the fierce competition that has infected American sports of all kinds and the sub cultures – like spelling bees - that provide emotional homes for so many people. Parents, not teachers, have become the driving force, the chauffeurs, the royal “deciders” in pushing children forward.
In this refreshing new movie, Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is the daughter of Tanya, a single mom who works multiple shifts and sees academics as the sole path to a better life for her daughter. For Tanya, spelling bees are merely toy games, distractions on the road. For Akeelah, words are her passion - not just the spelling of them, but what she can do with them. With little support at home, Akeelah turns to Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a widowed UCLA professor of English who has been nursing his sorrow on an isolated leave of absence. Dr. Larabee responds to Akeelah’s request for coaching with tough disciplinary demands of his own. The bubbling Akeelah now has both a mother and a mentor who are reluctant; we are spared the sight of parents who smother their young. What these two adults care about is helping Akeelah find her future in a tough world.
Javier (J.R. Villarreal), a Mexican/American who lives in the affluent Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles, befriends Akeelah and invites her to his birthday party, a long bus ride between cultures. Theirs is an appealing and sustaining friendship. Dylan (Sean Michael Affable), an Asian/American son of one of those driven fathers we remember from “Spelling Bee,” will draw from Akeelah one of life’s finer lessons. While last year’s documentary added a piece to the puzzle of American culture, this fictional story tells about a young girl who competes because she genuinely wants to test her own talent. She carries her core values with her – to the great benefit of her friends and family. You will see more of Keke Palmer.
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