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"Joyfully uplifting, 'Akeelah and the Bee' is quietly, one of the year's finest."
"A film about a character that unselfishly self-improves."
"Implores each of us to harness our inner strengths while empowering others to do the same."
Akeelah and the Bee  

Cast

Tanya Anderson: Angela Bassett
Akeelah Anderson: Keke Palmer
Dr. Joshua Larabee: Laurence Fishburne
Mr. Welch: Curtis Armstrong
Javier: J.R. Villarreal
Georgia: Sahara Garey
Dylan: Sean Michael Afable
Kiana Anderson: Erica Hubbard
Review April 2006

Appoggiatura, succedaneum, prospicience. These are just a few of the championship words spelled correctly at the Scripp's National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. over the years. Words that you and I, no doubt, have never even heard of, let alone been forced to spell check. And yet, they are the kinds of words that youngsters like Akeelah Anderson can rattle off in their sleep. Written and directed by Nicholl Fellowship winner Doug Atchison, "Akeelah and the Bee" is an inspirational story about a young girl from South Los Angeles who struggles to make it through her school's local spelling bee before heading on to the state, regional, and National Spelling Bees. And through the encouragement of her school, her friends, and her community, she discovers her true potential, all the while inspiring those around her. Much like the benevolent spirit found beautifully in "Searching for Bobby Fisher," "Akeelah" triumphs not just as a film about empowerment and good sportsmanship, but a film about doing the right thing. And its star, Keke Palmer, will absolutely steal your heart. Joyfully uplifting, "Akeelah and the Bee" is quietly, one of the year's finest.

Akeelah Anderson is 11 years old, living in the harsh environs of South Central with her mother, Tanya, and her two older brothers. An extremely intelligent and gifted young speller, Akeelah downplays her skills, fearful of being labeled a bookworm. And subsequently, her grades suffer. But one of her teachers sees great potential in her and encourages her to enter the school's first ever, spelling bee. Fearful that her classmates will ridicule her, Akeelah dismisses the offer and the opportunity to represent her school. At least, until she stumbles upon an ESPN telecast of the National Spelling Bee and becomes enthralled. Watching kids her age battle on stage over the most challenging of words inspires her to study and practice even harder. And when the school competition comes around, she enters and breezes to victory.

But the road ahead, through state, regional, and national spelling bees is much more intimidating. In particular, the realization that most spelling champions and competitors come from privileged backgrounds, with private coaches, specialized training regimens, and computer aided programs. Not to be deterred, the school principal at Akeelah's school enlists the help of a spelling coach, Dr. Joshua Larabee. Larabee was a spelling champ as a child, but now works as a college English professor, currently on a temporary leave of absence after the death of his wife and daughter. Initially, Larabee questions Akeelah's ability, her commitment, and her integrity almost to the point of driving Akeelah away. But with the right support group, with the right friends, Akeelah clears many personal obstacles on her way to the National Spelling Bee. And simultaneously earns the respect of her community, including that of Dr. Larabee, who regains his sense of self.

"Akeelah and the Bee" is an inspiring piece of filmmaking from 2000 Nicholl Fellowship recipient, Doug Atchison. And it's quite a departure from Atchison's previous work, "The Pornographer," about a regular, upstanding man who self-destructs after becoming involved in the pornography industry. Or "The Distraction," about a happily married man who unravels after having an affair with a co-worker. For starters, "Akeelah" is a terrific family film, multilayered with a slew of respectable themes: a community that comes together to help one of their own, a young girl who overcomes her fears to find her own unique voice, and a wonderful reminder about the importance of good sportsmanship. Full of emotion and personal triumphs, "Akeelah" is a film about a character that unselfishly self-improves.

Recently, it's been amazing to observe the level of maturity some young actresses demonstrate at the outset of their careers. For instance, Dakota Fanning in "I am Sam." Or Keisha Castle-Hughes in "Whale Rider." It's as if they've been acting for a lifetime the way they naturally react to their surroundings and evoke tenderness and assurance at every turn. Such is the way Keke Palmer takes control of "Akeelah and the Bee." Sifting through emotions over a lost parent, ridicule at school due to unwarranted jealousy, a personal lack of self-esteem, and then, a powerful explosion of self-confidence, Palmer's performance is extraordinary. Full of insecurity, intelligence, and innocence, Palmer makes the difficult look easy and effortless. In fact, it's the kind that should lend itself to many awards. Even though she's had moderate success in such features as "Barbershop 2" and "Madea's Family Reunion" and even though she became the youngest actor ever to be nominated for a Lead Actor SAG Award for William H. Macy's "The Wool Cap," her stand out role in "Akeelah" will cement her future as a young, Hollywood heavyweight.

While Palmer undoubtedly dominates the screen, she is supported by an outstanding cast. In particular, that of Laurence Fishburne. In a role and genre reminiscent of "Searching for Bobby Fisher," Fishburne asserts himself with poise and power. At times, he is stern and demanding and other times, gentle and vulnerable - a welcome change to the forceful, unyielding presence he's known for in such hits as "The Matrix," "Mystic River," "Boyz in the Hood," and most recently, "Mission Impossible III." Fishburne is accompanied by his "What's Love Got to Do with It" co-star Angela Bassett, who portrays Akeelah's mother, Tanya. A role that Bassett is comfortable with, solidly showing strength and stature as a single mother with three kids. Additionally, Anderson benefits from a lovable group of youngsters such as J.R. Villareal's Javier or Sean Michael Afable's Dylan that bring a diverse range of concern and conflict, allowing Akeelah to shine in the best possible light.

If there were a downside to the film, it would only be that it followed in the footsteps of "Spellbound," another terrific movie about spelling bees. After all, the similarities between the two are quite noticeable. In particular, there is a genuine closeness between Ashley White and Akeelah Anderson - both come from the projects (Ashley from D.C.) and both come from single parent families, raised by their hard working, absentee mothers. They even play and use Scrabble to improve their skills. And the film conveniently uses the championship word depicted in "Spellbound" (Logorrhea). Yet, despite such similarities, "Akeelah" stands on its own, a work of fiction instead of documentary. And more importantly, it steers clear of clich? and convention, building relationships between Akeelah and her professor, her fellow contestants, and her family and community that are tough and demanding on the outset, but emotionally rewarding as the film progresses.

Undeniably, "Akeelah and the Bee" has its heart in the right place. Almost unexpectedly, it's a film that is full of emotion, sucking you into the story and making you laugh, cry, and cheer alongside each of the contestants and characters. With a beautifully mesmerizing performance by Keke Palmer, the film hits on all cylinders, subconsciously imploring each of us to harness our inner strengths while empowering others to do the same. As quoted from Marianne Williamson and taught by Dr. Larabee in the film, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure?as we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." A wise lesson that "Akeelah" has no trouble spelling out.



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