That seemingly inexhaustible new movie subgenre, the spelling bee drama, receives its most conventionally uplifting treatment yet in “Akeelah and the Bee.” Framed around the relationship between an underdog word whiz and her tough-lovin’ coach, this earnest weepie plays like “The Karate Kid” with a pro-literacy agenda, pushing all the right emotional buttons yet hitting quite a few wrong ones in the process. Overly calculated yet undeniably potent crowd-pleasing elements should spell moderate but sustained returns, especially in urban markets, when Lionsgate releases the pic April 28 with 2929 Prods. and first-time distrib Starbucks Entertainment.
Directed by Doug Atchison from his Nicholl Fellowship-winning screenplay, pic reps the latest entry in a cinematic tradition that includes the riveting 2003 documentary “Spellbound” and last year’s chilly psychological drama “Bee Season” (and could even be expanded to include legit hit “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”).
“Akeelah and the Bee” is broader and has shallower ambitions, treating the national spelling bee phenomenon as a democratizing force — a vehicle for self-redemption, social change and three-hankie inspirational melodrama.
Winningly played by Keke Palmer (“The Wool Cap”), 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson is a gifted but undermotivated student at a predominantly black middle school in South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district. Akeelah’s desire to blend in can’t hide her preternatural spelling abilities from her teacher (Dalia Phillips) or principal (Curtis Armstrong), who encourage her to enter the school bee and then push her into the regional competition, with the slim hope that she might go all the way to the nationals in Washington.
Initially afraid of either failing or looking like a brainiac, Akeelah throws herself into her studies but soon encounters her fair share of obstacles. Her widowed mother (the ever-reliable Angela Bassett) is cranky, distracted and skeptical of her daughter’s newfound passion. Akeelah’s also intimidated by her regional competitors from well-to-do families.
Enter the gruff Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a professor and former spelling champ whose last name can hardly be a coincidence. Played with testy, no-nonsense magnetism and a slight paunch by Fishburne (who also produced), Larabee dismisses Akeelah at first, but her persistence and dedication ultimately win him over.
Duo’s prickly interactions, which gradually thaw into mutual respect and surrogate father-daughter affection, form the bittersweet core of the movie. Still, pic would have done well not to saddle Larabee with a painful family history that all too conveniently mirrors Akeelah’s own.
The script overall betrays a weakness for emotional simplification and would feel a lot less manipulative if, like “Spellbound,” it were genuinely interested in the art and mechanics of spelling. But aside from a few well-played scenes of Akeelah and Larabee studying obscure etymologies and developing mnemonic devices, pic focuses its highly optimistic gaze on the bee’s community-uniting impact, as Akeelah becomes a local celebrity.
Outside that community, Akeelah nurses a cute prepubescent romance with rival Javier (J.R. Villarreal) while fending off snide remarks from sullen super-prodigy Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael Afable). Dylan’s authoritarian dad (Tzi Ma) is arguably pic’s most questionable creation, a stiff Asian stereotype whose dialogue (he calls Akeelah a “silly black girl”) wouldn’t seem out of place in Lionsgate’s similarly heavy-handed L.A. story “Crash.”
Pic’s big D.C. finale, though overlong, delivers emotional sweep and high-stakes drama (plus a few lessons about good sportsmanship, natch). Atchison reveals himself to be something of a showman here, and while the ending is never really in doubt, he wrings an impressive level of suspense from the proceedings that makes one wish the story’s other emotional high points were more honestly earned.
Going furthest to sell the material is Palmer, whose spunky, cute-as-a-button Akeelah is all but impossible to root against. Thesp movingly illuminates the pressures facing a girl caught between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Well-lensed in and around Los Angeles by M. David Mullen, with some occasional if conspicuous handheld camerawork, this is one of the rare films featuring scenes shot at USC that are actually intended to represent USC. Aaron Zigman’s musical score offers conventional but relatively discreet support.
Final credits were not yet available when print screened.