Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee

***

Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

F-O-R-M-U-L-A-I-C. Formulaic.

Right from the start you know how Akeelah (Keke Palmer) and her Bee are going to work out. She's a precocious 11-year-old from the low-income streets of LA, with a talent for battling the letters but not peer pressure or her single-parenting mum (Angela Bassett). It's a National Spelling competition that's dominated by highly schooled and affluent walking dictionaries from Beverly Hills. In steps the forthright Dr Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), quiet and wise with his own challenges to face. Can he tutor Akeelah in time for the big tournament?

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You don't need an encyclopaedia to figure it out.

There are some very well worn buttons being pushed here. Well worn for good reason, though, and pushing them in tried and tested order means things can't really go that wrong for writer-director Doug Atchison. Ok, it's not going to be at all surprising, but that's not really the point of a movie like A & The B. This is all about building on a blueprint of predictability and then going for the heartstrings as much as possible. So it is that all the characters here are spelt out in capital letters, from Akeelah's widowed, always working mother to her older brothers, one on the straight and in the US army, the other off the rails and in the hood. From her father who is dead but very much with her to her frustrated school principal who is ambitious but sensitive. From her school friends who are supportive but perhaps getting distanced by her talent to her alien but approachable new spell master mates. Of course, then there's the inspirational Dr Larabee, who has everything to teach the eleven year old but can still learn a few things from her, too.

Everyone's got a life-changing experience coming and we're all going to be feeling much better for it when it happens, dammit. Atchison keeps pushing those buttons while building things up to the major tournament and it's the relentlessness of the universal themes and wholesomeness that drags in even the coldest of viewers - although this reaches breaking point when Akeelah's family, school, drug-dealing community, indeed the whole world rally around her towards the end.

It's a credit to everyone's performances that they manage to flesh out their roles as much as possible amid the saccharine life lessons they're learning. Standouts are Fishburne in sonorous though considerably more humble Morpheus mode, while Bassett is again a tough-loving modern female role model. But it's the young Palmer who carries the film, with just enough pep to keep her the right side of sprightliness rather than annoying. She shares some fun scenes with her Mexican friend Javier (J. R. Villarreal) along the way.

There's enough simple charm and intelligence here to appeal to parents and their youngsters alike, but the adults more so. Released towards the end of the school holidays and rupturing with themes of dedicated studying and life-affirming morals, this is one of those films parents will want their kids to see.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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Akeelah and the Bee packshot
Young Akeelah learns more than letters on the way to the National Spelling Bee.
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Director: Doug Atchison

Writer: Doug Atchison

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Curtis Armstrong, JR Villarreal, Sean Michael

Year: 2006

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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