Review: Akeelah and the Bee

As an exceptionally smart young African-American girl living in a depressed neighborhood, Akeelah (Keke Palmer, "Madea's Family Reunion") struggles to keep her intelligence below the radar of her critical friends and family (including mother Angela Bassett). When her principal (the always welcome Curtis Armstrong) encourages Akeelah to join the school spelling bee, Akeelah reluctantly accepts and wins, leading her to the championship bee in Washington D.C. Brought in to coach Akeelah is Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who endeavors to help the girl embrace her intelligence as Akeelah reminds him of his previous life as a family man.

With the success of the near perfect 2003 documentary, "Spellbound," the fallout has been two features that look to dramatize the personal turmoil that comes with pre-teen spelling bees. The Richard Gere film, "Bee Season," was a competent and visually ambitious production, but it often left reality behind in the pursuit of religious mysticism. "Akeelah and the Bee" (IMDb listing) comes closer to what made "Spellbound" so special, but also fails to capture the thrill of the bee.

"Akeelah" finds its identity through its African-American angle, using Akeelah's south central Los Angeles background as a roadblock to her success in education and the bee. Writer/director Doug Atchison ("The Pornographer") mines the location for drama, giving Akeelah static through her distracted mother, her bullying classmates (punishing her for being bright), and the lure of street life, which has swallowed her older brother. Atchison positions the barriers well, keeping the viewer as frustrated as Akeelah that her gifts are not being realized to their full potential. The theme of educational growth against incredible odds is richly appreciated, but the payoffs lack dramatic gas.

Eventually melodrama starts to seep into "Akeelah" in ways that grow increasingly formulaic and absurd. Aaron Zigman's overbearing score leads the charge as the script dive bombs into hammy subplots, the worst offender is Larabee's tragic past, which forces Fishburne into acting positions he doesn't know how to bow out of gracefully. I also wasn't thrilled with the depiction of the parents of Akeelah's Asian rival, who are portrayed with all the subtlety of a Nazi commandant who missed a meal, as well as providing the obligatory moment of racism toward Akeelah. Atchison seems smarter and more ambitious than the story he's presenting, leaving these characters and scenes with the aftertaste of studio intervention.

The idea of a community coming together to support Akeelah is the film's strongest message, even if it does feature the icky appearance (and semi-celebration) of drug dealers, who help Akeelah study her words. The notion that even the supposed worst neighborhoods still have a loving, supporting heart is sweet and positive, and lifts the third act of the picture away from the poorly scripted weights that routinely hold it down.

Filmfodder Grade: B-