Akeelah and the Bee (review)

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To Bee, or Not to Bee

So I popped into a Starbucks the other morning for an overpriced cup of delicious joe, and there’s spelling-bee flashcards by the Splenda and the half-and-half and taped to all the doors and windows, and I expected to be asked if I wanted some pastry or perhaps a dictionary with my coffee. Cuz, you see, Akeelah and the Bee is the first movie that “Starbucks Entertainment” is pushing — the company’s been looking for the right flick to get into the movie-marketing biz with, and this one was chosen because it “is a story that reflects the values of creativity, community, hope and perseverance which we at Starbucks hold dear” (says Starbucks.com).

And as much as that makes me wanna gag, and as much as terms like “corporate synergy” and “cobranding” make me wish I could get stranded on a deserted island on which I might have no contact with focus groups and PR-speak for the remainder of my natural life, I gotta admit: They’re right, these coffee people with their delicious overpriced beverages and their progressive values. Akeelah is pretty darn wonderful: uplifting without being sappy, inspiring without being unrealistic. I confess I got a bit sniffly at the end, even though I saw the ending coming from, well, from the moment when all those Akeelah and the Bee spelling-bee flashcards started getting plastered all over every damn Starbucks.
Yeah, that’s the big thing keeping me from calling Akeelah a truly great film: It’s predictable. Hollywood usage: The condition of evincing a manner of being that compels the observer to feel as if she has seen this movie 18 gazillion times before. P-R-E-D-I-C-T-A-B-L-E. Predictable.

This a cinematic road we’ve journeyed too many times before for their to be anything like revelation in Akeelah. It’s so conventional as to be clichéd: the underdog student no one expects to succeed, the wounded teacher who will be rejuvenated by the joie de vivre of this young person taken under his wing (think Finding Forrester for the junior-high set). Writer/director Doug Atchison won the highly prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting contest in 2000 with this script, and it’s actually shocking to imagine that this was one of the top five scripts out of the 4,500 entries that year — where Akeelah succeeds, it is despite its script, not because of it.

Akeelah succeeds because of Akeelah. Because the character is a rarity in movies: a smart, geeky girl (I used the word “geek” in only the most positive sense) who overcomes peer pressure — to conform and be “average” and hide how brainy she is — just at that precarious preteen point when it threatens to overwhelm most girls, and usually succeeds in doing so. If nothing else, Akeelah is a glorious triumph for all little girls seeking an alternative role model, and for parents who would wish to expose their daughters to a wonderful example of how “being cool” doesn’t have to mean “being just like everyone else.” Because as Akeelah, the clever and lovely Keke Palmer — who was 11 years old when the film was shot, the same age as her character — is one of the most credible and compelling young actors I’ve ever seen, with a warmth and a genuine real-kidness that isn’t often captured on film.

Which isn’t to suggest that the rest of the cast isn’t fantastic, either. Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix Revolutions, Mystic River) — as the grieving college prof who coaches Akeelah on her road from a horrendously ill-equipped South L.A. school all the way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. — overcomes the hackneyed speechifying he must direct at Akeelah and manages not to let on that he surely knows all of us in the audience are hearing Morpheus-esque profundities every time he opens his mouth. (A change of a single word here and there in many of his lines, and he could be coaching Neo… and it doesn’t help that Akeelah’s last name is Anderson.) Angela Bassett (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Supernova), as Akeelah’s mother, suffers a too-dramatic change of heart, from the single mom weighed down with job and family responsibilities to pay much attention to Akeelah’s needs and desires to a wholehearted supporter, but Bassett is such a powerful presence that we’ll pretend to ignore that. And young J.R. Villarreal as Akeelah’s bee-pal Javier and Sean Michael Afable as her bee-nemesis Dylan are charming in their real-kidness, too.

So see Akeelah, and bring along a smart little girl you know who needs some confirmation that it’s okay to be a brainiac. Just don’t expect that you won’t be rolling your eyes at its corniness… at the same time you’re wiping away a few tears of joy, too.

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