The growing popularity of spelling bees as spectator sports, pointed up by the startling success of the documentary “Spellbound,” now spills over into the fictional arena with this earnest, well-meaning tale of the pursuit of a national championship by a naturally talented black girl from a poor section of Los Angeles. “Akeelah and the Bee” might be considered a variant of the “Searching for Bobby Fischer” model, although it’s considerably less subtle in its effects. (The similarity is accentuated by the fact that Laurence Fishburne appears in both pictures.) It’s nice but more than a little formulaic, and while families that trek out to see it won’t be excessively disappointed, it does seem like a family telefilm that’s migrated somewhat uncomfortably to theatres.
Perky Keke Palmer plays Akeelah, a bright student at a middle school in an impoverished L.A. neighborhood who’s reluctant to show her abilities too openly for fear of being taunted by classmates. Nonetheless her principal (Curtis Armstrong), always looking for a way to boost the visibility of the school and perhaps get some extra funding, notices her stellar performance in the school spelling competition and enlists his old friend Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), a professor and erstwhile spelling champ himself who’s predictably demanding, to help her train for more advanced contests. But her overworked mother Tanya (Angela Bassett), concerned about her daughter’s new interest, doesn’t provide much support–which will lead Akeelah even to go behind her back to continue competing.
The strokes that follow in the movie are almost comforting in their predictability. Akeelah and Larabee, both strong-willed, eventually bond, and find that they share a problem in coming to terms with grief (she’s lost a father, he a daughter). Larabee hones in on a “key” to Akeelah’s unexplained talent and urges her to use it. Akeelah has a temporary falling-out with her best pal when she connects with Javier (J.R. Villarreal), a competitor from a well-to-do school, who invites her to study with him and his friends. Akeelah’s relationship with her mother undergoes increasing strain even as the neighborhood rallies around her (an especially overdrawn touch, particularly when even street toughs get behind her as representative of the whole community). And–in what’s certainly writer-director Doug Atchison’s most debatable choice–there’s an ultimate opponent, a machine-perfect Asian kid (Sean Michael Afable) pushed to win by his merciless (and prejudiced) father (Tzi Ma) whatever the cost. Though this plot thread is finally worked out in a way that humanizes the father-son combination, the initial stereotyping remains an irritant. One might also object to the confrontation created by Tanya’s sudden intrusion in the middle of a major bee, designed to drive home the importance of honesty and portray the mother’s ultimately supportive stance for the child, but still staged so emphatically that it comes perilously close to being risible; and to the big finale, which draws out the denouement to almost ridiculous lengths and ends in a fashion calculated not to make anybody feel bad. One might also complain that insufficient attention is given to the actual mechanics of training for the bees, especially since the few scenes we get between Palmer and Fishburne are among the best in the film, but of course this isn’t another documentary.
And despite the movie’s weaknesses, it’s certainly likable in a puppy-dog way. Palmer makes an engaging young heroine, with Bassett, Fishburne and Armstrong lending strong adult support and Villarreal in particular earning audience sympathy among the younger supporting cast. The picture looks a bit tattered around the edges, with M. David Mullen’s cinematography merely functional, and Glenn Farr’s editing could be firmer (the picture runs an expansive 107 minutes), but visually it will do.
Inoffensive but overly anxious to please, “Akeelah and the Bee” seems rather out of place on the big screen. But it should have a long shelf life on DVD.