Film Review – Akeelah and the Bee

Directed: Doug Atchison

Writer: Doug Atchison

Starring:  Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Keke Palmer

Tagline: “Changing the world… one word at a time”

Trivia: Laurence Fishburne’s character, Mr Larabee, is based on director Doug Atchison’s teacher, Mr. Larabell.

As a heavy dyslectic person, watching movies about spelling is an act of masochism and humiliation.

Most people would try to spell the words as they watch the movie as part of their engagement in the movie, while for me it would be a constant reminder of a weakness I cannot improve or conquer (except thanks to auto spellcheck on software).

However, Akkelah and the Bee, is one of my all-time-favourite movies when I need a reminder that nothing is impossible. It is one of those inspirational stories like “Rocky” or “Rudy,” or “The Great Debaters,” where an underdog competitor works hard to achieve a dream.

But the movie isn’t about the competition. It is about heart, dedication, intelligence and the pulling together of an entire community.

My favourite quote is “If you open your eyes you’ll find 500 coaches around you” The world needs more of this realization.

Akeelah and the Bee tells the heart-warming story of Akeelah Anderson (played by 11 year old Keke Palmer in an excellent performance) who is reluctantly talked into participating in her school’s spelling bee by her principal.

While Akeelah loves spelling, she is hesitant to participate in the contest because in her school there is danger in being labeled a “brainiac,” and it’s wiser to keep your smarts to yourself.

This is a tragedy in some predominantly black schools: Excellence, is punished by the other students, possibly as an expression of their own low self-esteem.

Just like a similar documentary that came a few years earlier, Spellbound, the competition in this film isn’t athletic, it is academic, namely the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, where youngsters must spell extremely difficult words or be knocked out of the competition.

A contest film is basically the same as any sports movie. Instead of a football field, the action takes place on a stage. You have the training, the stages of wins and defeats, the personal stakes for at least one player.

The objective of the formula is to leave the audience feeling inspired by the final attainment, against odds and hurdles. The end result is never in doubt.

The appeal of these films is wide, from the totally undiscerning sports fan to those who demand more in the script than competition fever.

Akeelah and the Bee couldn’t be more predictable or more joyful. I imagine it sounds like a nice but fairly conventional movie.

What makes it transcend the material is the way Akeelah relates to her coach professor (Laurence Fishburne), and to two fellow contestants: a Mexican-American named Javier (J.R. Villarreal) and an Asian American named Dylan (Sean Michael Afable).

The sessions between Akeelah and the professor are crucial to the film, because he is teaching her not only strategy but also how to be willing to win.

No, he doesn’t use self-help cliches. He is demanding, uncompromising, and he tells her again and again: “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” which is probably the whole message of this movie.

Though competition movies are predictable, Doug Atchison, the writer and director of the movie, has managed to create an original plot construction which gives the third act a whole new twist, and makes the movie a much better movie and a more interesting one.

The reason Akeelah is as successful as it is, is the appeal of the central figure.

Little Keke Palmer, with her fresh intelligence and natural gift for honest expression, catches our heart from the start. Bonding with her so strongly from the start makes this film a joyful experience and allowed me to go through the steps of the story with her despite the obviousness of the track it was on. Which reminded me that predictability, by itself, isn’t necessarily a destructive factor.

Akeelah and the Bee connects where it counts most, on an emotional level. Only a cold-blooded killjoy could watch this feisty but vulnerable youngster rack up victories against all odds without tearing up

Verdict – 4.5/5 Stars in my book

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