South L.A. student Akeelah Anderson (Keeke Palmer), age eleven, feels like an outsider. But boy oh boy can that girl ever spell. The school principle (Curtis Armstrong) arranges for a spelling coach (Laurence Fishburne), as they agree she has a chance at the national championship, which will reflect pride onto her crummy low-grade L.A. school.
As Akeelah & the Bee (2006) progresses, we watch Akeelah go through rebelliousness against coach & school & family, but always as if by magic wand rather than any serious likelihood, everything works out absolutely perfectly, everyone easily transmutes into candidates for sainthood.
We see Akeelah try to cope with an unsupportive mom (Angela Bassett) who seems like a total witch refusing to even listen to her daughter's dreams & quick to punish for no good reason. But that works out too & mom magically turns good.
We see her alienate her best friend (Sahara Garey) but forgiveness is just a sentence away. We watch her colors-wearing brother (Lee Thompson Youn) getting baited into the gang-dominated streets but heck, a sister who wins spelling bees will set him on the road to ideality without any other change in his environment required.
We see her bullied at school for nerdiness but that lasts about half a minute before everyone in the neighborhood is treating her like the most important pretty thing they've ever seen.
We see her wig out at her rigid coach who lacks even a semblance of warmth, but then she turns Saint Kid & becomes totally obedient & even finding the cold bastard an acceptible father figure since her's is dead. We find out her coach is suffering from reclusive depression over the death of wife & child & this coaching gig is the first time he's poked his head into the real world, which will be eough to make him happy go lucky by the end.
It's a film that believes in quick & easy fixes & happy endings at all cost of credibility. The film if chock full of turmoils & threats of disappointments that last a few minutes each, then resolve as easily as washing off a transfer-tattoo, as though nothing that happens to a child is anything but prelude to everything working out oh so very well.
There's even a straw-dog "villain" of an multiracial kid (Sean Michael) whose Chinese dad (Tzi Ma) seems likely to rip him a new one if he doesn't win. But in a kittens-and-bunnies family film like this one, dad will have a magical change of his core nature, & enemies at spelling become bestest of friends & not even really competitors.
I was surprised by the mediocrity of the film's production values. It has the look of a cheap telefilm, & the acting is only so-so. Even from Lawrence Fishburne as the coach rises to the occasion in only a couple scenes late in the film. The exception is Keke Palmer as Akeelah. She's slow to get behind the character. The make-up department tricked her out as much, much, much too modelishly pretty. So she remains too obviously the sold-on-looks actress-singer-model who grew up privileged in the predominantly black low-crime midwest town of Harvey, Illinois, & not at all the geeky inner-city L.A. ghetto kid not expected to make good. But eventually Keke convinces you Akeelah is real, & she saves the film.
I found Akeelah awfully flawed in that it's mild suspense relies on bringing in major issues of a troubled childhood then dismissing them with unrealistic sudden cures. One of its messages is that good parenting doesn't exist so has nothing to do with the occasional survival of one talented child. Good kids on the other hand can inspire & improve disruptive adults. That's one strange message. It's otherwise the kind of film one expects to be all Jesusy in its miracles of the quick-fix of prayer, though this one uses the magic of author's puppetry instead of fairies or God to provide the miracles.
But I don't think child viewers would see that deeply into the film. Although a mite dull for any but the most mawkish & sentimentally inclined adult, children ought to admire Akeelah a great deal. For younger or slower kids, the film's simpleminded messages about family, friendship, healing, & community are good things to be exposed to, all too rarely found in cinema, even if those messages add up to the outright lie that it is easy to be perfect.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl