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American Bee:
The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds
by James Maquire

. "Akeelah and the Bee"

This is a film that couldn't be more predictable or more joyful. From an original and perfectly constructed script by Doug Atchison who also directed, it features a new actress in a breakout role with strong support from her peers and from the pros.

When 11-year old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) agrees to enter something as nerdy as the school spelling bee in order to avoid detention for her absentee record, her win sets up a range of reactions. Her best pal celebrates, her enviers put her down, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstong), the middle school principal, implores her to compete in the regional bee and bring honor (and needed funding) to the school. Her mother Tanya (Angelea Bassett) is too tired from work to pay her daughter much mind in any event.

Akeelah, chronically insecure and slightly embarrassed by all the attention, finds that her destiny is not altogether under her control. Her shyness and fear of unimagined challenges is countered by grownup encouragement, discipline, and a taste for competition. She's not altogether against further testing her gift with words, nor achieving beyond her detractors' expectations. It reaches a new level of seriousness when Mr. Welch brings in Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), an old school chum of his who is highly qualified to coach Akeelah for the competition ahead, the objective being to win the regionals and advance to the Scripps Nationals in Washington, DC.

While engaging the intense Dr. Larabee with talent and attitude, and initial doubts that she needs the demands of a coach, she tests his patience at every step. She's surprised to find sweet support from Javier Mendez (J.R. Villarreal), a competitor in the upcoming bee with a bit of a crush on the little darling. She senses a dire challenge from the likeliest winner of the contests, Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael) whose holier-than-thou posturing sets him apart from everyone. When Akeelah takes note of Dylan's pushy father (Tzi Ma) demanding his son's perfection with tyranical threats, we see a quality of understanding and empathy in her.

On her trail of spelling adventures, followed in the press, Akeelah spins minds around and becomes a hometown heroine, eliciting help from everyone in the community and bringing doubters together as a chorus of encouragement.

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.

But, the real key to success that makes some of these movies rise above the rest, and 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, had me from the start. Bonding with her so strongly from the start made 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.

I can't wait for another trip to take with the admirable Keke Palmer.

Fishburne is his usual heavyweight presence, though he makes it work beautifully in a teacher-student contest of wills. Bassett is good as the central impediment to her daughter's pathway to fame and attainment. There are no rough edges to be found in the support cast and it's a certainty that Atchison got the picture he was after.

In this first film to be produced by Starbucks Coffee, Mr. Fishburne is one of the producers.

Having said all that I just hope I've spelled every word here correctly.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner 
                                          Cinema Signals  


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