Akeelah & The Bee
Review by Jack Foley
OUR VERDICT: THE success of Spellbound has inevitably led to a glut of spelling bee-related movies. Curiously, however, none have managed to recreate the excitement and emotional intensity of Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary.
Akeelah & The Bee does at least provide a more worthwhile experience than Richard Gere’s Bee Season but it’s a generic tale that borrows heavily from the Good Will Hunting formula for success.
Eleven-year-old Akeelah (Keke Palmer) has a gift for spelling but thinks it uncool until she starts to win spelling bee competitions.
Keen to nurture and develop her talent, her teachers recruit a grieving professor, Dr Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), to train her for the national finals. But past ghosts and a lack of support from Akeelah’s single mother (Angela Bassett) threaten to thwart her chances of success.
Directed by Doug Atchison, Akeelah & The Bee offers a suitably sweet underdog tale thanks to several charming performances.
Fishburne has long been a compelling presence on-screen and his softly-spoken, quietly grieving professor is another masterful creation despite drawing inevitable comparisons to Robin Williams’ character in the aforementioned Good Will Hunting.
His relationship with Palmer’s precocious Akeelah is also nicely developed, flitting capably between spiky and respectful.
Even Bassett is afforded some nice moments and it’s good to see her reunited with Fishburne on-screen for the first time since What’s Love Got To Do With It.
But as hard as the film tries, it struggles to escape the restrictions placed upon it by such ormulaic plot devices.
Most of the characters feel hopelessly stereotypical and act exactly as audiences might expect, while issues of race and class divide are similarly obviously handled.
An overly sentimental conclusion also feels a little too contrived, especially in the way that the whole community – from postmen to local gangsters – unite to help Akeelah learn what’s required.
It’s almost ironic that a film about spelling should have to spell things out so blatantly for audiences. But in spite of this, the word on this is still good.
Running time: 113 minutes