© 2006 Ray Wong
Good, solid family films without any hidden agendas or adult humor are difficult to come by these days. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the delightful Because of Winn-Dixie. This year, I’m impressed with Starbuck’s first feature film: Akeelah and the Bee.
Akeelah (Palmer) is an 11-year-old girl from Crenshaw Elementary School in Los Angeles. Since her father passed away five years before, she has felt lonely and out of place, and she hates her school. The only thing that keeps her going is her love for words. Big words. When her teacher and Principle Welsh (Armstrong) find out her ability to spell, they suggest that she enter in the district spelling bee contest. At first, Akeelah would have nothing to do with it. When she sees the National Spelling Bee Tournament on TV, the fire in her belly starts to grow. She wants a taste of what it is like to be above average. Better yet, it might be her chance to get out of Crenshaw.
Principle Welsh convinces Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), a former national spelling bee champion himself, that Akeelah has a special gift, and could put Crenshaw on the map. Larabee agrees. But Akeelah is too wild and unpredictable, not to mention her mother, Tanya (Bassett) is not at all supportive. Behind her mother’s back, Akeelah studies with Larabee and progresses to the regional contest. She becomes good friends with a rich kid, Javier (Villarreal), from Woodland Hills who is also in the contest. Her biggest competitor is Dylan (Michael), a Chinese boy whose victory means everything to his stern father. When Akeelah finally makes it to the national, she feels the whole world weighing on her. She doesn’t know if she has what it takes to win.
Palmer (Barbershop 2) is extraordinary as Akeelah, and she carries the film on her tiny shoulders beautifully. Her layered, complex performance as the conflicted girl is impressive. She’s so natural that you don’t realize she is acting at all. She becomes Akeelah, and the minute you see her on screen, you believe in her. Palmer is that good. Fishburne (Assault on Precinct 13) is, as usual, solid as the solemn professor. The chemistry between Fishburne and Palmer is astounding. Their relationship is a major reason why the film works.
Bassett (Mr. And Mrs. Smith) is very good as Akeelah’s tired and skeptical mother. She really conveys the emotional burdens of a single mother, trying to do the right thing for her children while feeling completely lost. Armstrong (Pucked) is fine as the Crenshaw Principle ready for a break. Villarreal (Ghost Whisperer) is wonderfully sweet as Akeelah’s selfless, happy-go-lucky friend, Javier. Michael (Chocolate Girl) is adequate as Akeelah’s quiet, cocky nemesis Dylan. Garey (Seen) is also pleasant as Akeelah’s best friend, Georgia.
Writer-director Atchison (The Pornographer) has crafted a tight, affecting film about family and self-esteem. What is wonderful is that while there are ample conflicts, trial and tribulations, there are really no villains in this story. The biggest obstacle one faces is the “fear of self.” As Akeelah learns from Larabee: Our deepest fear is not that we’re not adequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure (Marianne Williamson). There is such a rich, beautiful lesson in these quotes, and Akeelah and the Bee conveys that message through a strong story and characters. Atchison has a calm, straight-forward style that serves the film well.
Sure, the film is predictable, but it holds our interest through and through. The tension during the spelling bee contest is palpable, even though deep down we know Akeelah is going to be all right, because she has learned her lessons and she has found her true light. And through her light, we shall all be liberated.
Stars: Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal, Sean Michael, Sahara Garey
Director: Doug Atchison
Writer: Doug Atchison
Distributor: Lions Gate
MPAA Rating: PG for some language
Running Time: 112 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.6 out of 10