by Corey Hall
If even a fringe "sport" like ballroom dancing can have its day in cinema sunlight, then why not a mini-renaissance of spelling bee movies?
In the last two years the excellent documentary Spellbound, and the intriguing Bee Season have explored the realm of high-stakes polysyllabic combat, and now comes Akeelah and the Bee, a decidedly more mainstream take on the subject. A nonviolent, gender-neutral competitive event like a spelling bee provides a perfect platform on which to hang sports movie clichés, but without all the messy blood, sweat and male bonding. It's also the perfect venue for sugary, feel-good hokum, but served in a sneaky educational wrapper to make you feel like you're getting some nutrition with your syrup.
Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a bright 11-year-old in danger of fading into the chaos around her at a Los Angeles middle school. She inherited a love of letters from her late father and can spell words like "prestidigitation" in a snap, but she's conceals the talent from her peers, for fear of looking dorky. And Akeelah's tough, widowed mom (Angela Bassett) is too worried about the mortgage and keeping her youngest son away from the thug life to notice her daughter's gift. But leave it to a white middle-aged principal (Curtis Armstrong) to recognize her talent and the good press it could bring the crumbling school.
He hires a top-notch coach for her: the dour Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who has a closet full of yuppie sweaters and apparently another closet full of hidden tragedy. The two go through the requisite mentor-pupil tension until his Mr. Myagi-like training leads her to the national finals, and her spunky determination opens up his curmudgeonly heart. Her newfound celebrity status earns Akeelah a multi-cultural assortment of friends and rivals: Her nemesis is Dylan (Sean Michael), a dorky little word machine with a father so strict he's like the Genghis Khan of stage dads.
The movie is awash in political correctness, and the second half is loaded with montages that hammer home the Hillary Clinton It Takes a Village mentality and excessive sap. As Akeelah's community rallies around her, even the top local drug dealer (Eddie Steeples of My Name Is Earl fame) slows down his blinged-out SUV long enough to give our plucky heroine some encouragement. You go, Akeelah!
Fishburne and Bassett do their best to lend gravity, but suffer from sparsely drawn characters. Yet it's difficult to come down too hard on a picture this well-intentioned and positive, especially one anchored by such a terrific young actress as Palmer, who's sharp, natural and extremely likable.
The corporate java empire Starbucks is lending its marketing muscle to the film, and it's appropriate: The subject matter is as syrupy sweet and warm as a Venti double mocha latte, but it's also pretty irresistible.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.