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Review: Doug Atchison’s Akeelah and the Bee

Throughout, Keke Parker exudes adolescent fear and frustration with understated naturalism.

2.5
Akeelah and the Bee
Photo: Lionsgate

Despite boasting a perfect ‘70s sitcom title, Akeelah and the Bee is retro only insofar as its tale of an inner-city girl making it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee is faithfully modeled after multitudinous inspirational drama predecessors. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) hates her Los Angeles middle school, where the toilet stalls don’t have doors, the bullies are mean, and few seem to value academic intellect. Taught to love language by her since-murdered father, Akeelah is given an opportunity to shine when she’s encouraged by her school’s faculty to participate in a spelling bee. After winning handily, she’s convinced by her principal (Curtis Armstrong, a.k.a. B-O-O-G-E-R) to prepare for the ESPN-televised Washington, D.C. contest under the tutelage of UCLA professor Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, in sagacious mode), a sweater-wearing mentor also grief-stricken over the loss of a loved one. The ensuing clichés are too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that swelling music, dictionary-studying montages filmed with arbitrary circular camera pans, and a bunch of supporting characters easily pigeonholed as Best Friend, Love Interest, and Nemesis—as well as Angela Bassett’s overworked but loving mom—all make regular appearances in this sentimental attempt to piggyback on the continued popularity of Spellbound. Still, if Akeelah doesn’t reinvent the wheel, writer-director Doug Atchison refreshingly underplays most of his story’s contrivances long enough to allow his young star to deliver a superbly guileless performance as the titular wordsmith wunderkind. Free of quirky ticks and intolerable cutie-pie precociousness, Parker exudes adolescent fear and frustration with such understated naturalism that her protagonist’s anxieties and low self-esteem seem less like manipulative narrative devices created to impart be-yourself and embrace-your-potential lessons—which they most certainly are—and more like actual real-kid emotions. Far less authentic, however, is haughty competitor Dylan’s (Sean Michael Afable) father (Tzi Ma), a ludicrously dictatorial, winning-obsessed psycho who comes off like the spelling world’s very own Chairman Mao.

Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Curtis Armstrong, Sean Michael, JR Villarreal, Sean Michael Afable, Sahara Garey, Erica Hubbard Director: Doug Atchison Screenwriter: Doug Atchison Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG Year: 2006 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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