As long as there are adults who are caring, wise, smart or motivated enough to help someone younger who's unfocused, unmotivated or challenged but filled with potential, there will always be teacher/student, coach/athlete and mentor/protégé relationships. Since most everyone has played on one and sometimes both sides of any of those equations, Hollywood loves making movies about them.
That's not only due to the fact that almost everybody can relate to the characters and material, but also because of the dramatic potential in such stories. By now, of course, these sorts of tales are so familiar that they risk coming off as too repetitive and/or predictable, but that hasn't stopped filmmakers from telling them and viewers standing in line to see them.
The latest such film -- which is something of a mix between "Finding Forrester" and "The Karate Kid" (or many other such combinations) deals with the recent (albeit however unlikely) fascination with spelling bees. Following the documentary "Spellbound" and last year's "Bee Season," we now have "Akeelah and the Bee," a rousing and engaging little piece of dramatic entertainment.
In it, Keke Palmer makes a terrific debut as the title character, an inner-city girl who's bullied due to being smart. Accordingly, she tries to hide that attribute, mostly by speaking in a lighter version of Ebonics, all the better to fit in with the other kids at her middle school. Yet, a number of adults see her potential and thus encourage her to enter the school's spelling bee where she draws the attention of the man who will eventually become her mentor.
The rest, as they like to say, is history in that we pretty much know where the story is headed from there. Aside from a few wrinkles and spins, the storyline follows a predictable trajectory, and any number of standard clichés - the troubled mentor, the dead parent, the unsupportive one (at least at first), the friendly and the serious competitor, etc. -- flow forth like spelled letters from a confident contestant's mouth. Character arcs (spanning from how they begin the film to how they ultimately end up in it) are similarly foreseeable.
Yet, there's something about the way writer/director Doug Atchison has assembled and then rearranged all of the corresponding vowels, consonants and resultant words that makes it feel not only rather fresh, but also quite entertaining and enjoyable. Although there are accompanying and underlying dramatic elements outside the main event, the filmmaker doesn't spend as much time examining them as occurred in "Bee Season" that went off in some distracting directions.
Instead, the focus is mainly on the competition, starting from the inner-city school and continuing through city, state, regional and finally the national championship (c'mon, you didn't really think she was going to lose in the second round, now did you?). While it might seem difficult to make the matches come off as interesting, let alone exciting to anyone outside of the field (after all, it is just kids trying to spell words -- albeit sometimes extraordinarily difficult ones), Atchison manages to do just that thanks to a deft storytelling and directorial touch.
Of course, the film is all about that mentor/protégé relationship, and the filmmaker gets a lot of mileage from the interaction between Akeelah and the damaged soul instructor nicely played by Laurence Fishburne. There are the usual and to-be-expected montages of training, but there's enough novelty to the intellectual approach and subject matter used that it all seems fascinating. And while his buried little secret feels like a tacked on plot element that isn't that necessary to tell the tale, Fishburne wisely underplays it, thus giving that material (like other moments in the film), some nice emotional punch.
Another subplot that feels rote is the distracted/harried/unsupportive parent element involving Angela Bassett as Akeelah's parental unit who, at first glance, seems designed as just a creator of obstacles and complications for the girl. A hard-working widow, Tanya doesn't have time for this spelling bee nonsense, what with her teenage boy falling in with the wrong crowd (yet another cliché, however true it might be for some inner city kids). Despite the role's familiarity and - natch - predictable nature, Bassett makes it work, and it's fun seeing her and Ike, uh, Fishburne together on the screen once again.
More engaging are the moments between Akeelah and her friendly competitor played by J.R. Villarreal who embodies a privileged kid who shows our protagonist the ropes, including pointing out the so-serious-he's-a-stick-in-the-mud favorite played by Sean Michael. In keeping with the familiar, Atchison has Tzi Ma play his father like a parental drill sergeant who won't accept anything but first place from his son. While that's another stereotype, the friendship and near budding tween romance between Akeelah and Javier make the film fun to behold.
While some might spell "predictable" as H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D, this film manages to take that very quality and polish it off enough that the resultant offering feels fresh, engaging and highly entertaining. Thanks to solid work in front of and behind the camera, "Akeelah and the Bee" spells cinematic storytelling success. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.