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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Akeelah and the Bee

(H)I’ve been hearing a lot of good buzz about Akeelah and the Bee for the past few weeks and it has finally flown into the Essex Cinemas this week and, believe me, everything I’d heard is definitely true.

Anyone who has read my previous ramblings knows that I am not prone to the precociousness of children, so you can take this as high praise indeed. I know it is practically a capital crime in this country to not fawn over children and gush about them at every opportunity, but whereas most see them as “our future” I tend to see them as “our ruined upholstery” and never look further ahead than that. So when I first heard of Akeelah and the Bee I thought I would rather shove pins in my eyes than see a movie about an eleven year old girl working to make it into the National Spelling Bee. I mean, The National Spelling Bee? That sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry. Well, guess what? It is exciting. Really.

Akeelah and the Bee is so much more than a story about spelling. It is a complex character-driven
examination of many lives, but most notably two, the child prodigy of the title and the man who comes to mentor her. Akeelah (Keke Palmer, Madea’s Family Reunion) is a child drowning in a world without motivation. She lives in South Central Los Angeles with her workaholic mother (Angela Bassett, How Stella Got Her Groove Back; What's Love Got to Do with It ) and her teen sister, an unwed teen mother, her usually absent “good” brother, who is in the military and stationed out-of-state, and her sometimes present “bad” brother, the gang member wannabe that keeps his mother in a constant state of worry and angry frustration that he will end up dead in the streets like the kids’ father, who was shot coming home from work six years earlier.

These clichés aside, the story focuses less on them and more on Akeelah’s coming to realize that there is more to her life than living down to the expectations around her. Yes, she has been a failing
student and has skipped school regularly, but she has also been ridiculed and beaten up by her classmates whenever she has shown a glimmer of the intelligence that lay beneath the surface, so she has never been inspired to develop her gift before now.

Along comes Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), her principal, played by Revenge of the Nerds’ all grown-up Booger (yep, it’s really him), who recognizes Akeelah’s talents and is also savvy enough to know that promoting her as a contestant in the local Spelling Bee will bring attention to the miserable conditions at his school and hopefully help with future funding requests. Fortunately for Akeelah, Mr. Welch went to college with a former National Spelling Bee champion, Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, Mission Impossible III; The Matrix trilogy), who is impressed enough with the spelling whiz to agree to coach her.

Thus sets the scene for a remarkable friendship that will develop over the course of nine months as Akeelah first rebels then adapts to the stony seriousness of Larabee’s stern approach to life and the art of language. He will make demands on her she thinks unreasonable. No slang, no street
talk, no tardiness, no slacking off. He won’t answer personal questions about himself, such as why he is on sabbatical from his position as a professor of English at UCLA or why he keeps a box of children’s toys in his garage, but in return he will respect her and offer her the same courtesy he would any adult student and treat her better than she has ever been treated before. It doesn’t take a psychic to realize that Akeelah is going to find a surrogate father in Dr. Larabee and that he is going to come to find his own deep feelings for her that will affect not just the two of them but Akeelah’s mother and family as well by the story’s end.

Along with the main relationship of the film comes other plots that circle Akeelah’s orbit as well.
There is her awakening to differences in the socio-economic status of other people, for instance, as well as her dealing with the emotions related to experiencing her first crush. Having never ventured outside of her Crenshaw neighborhood before now it comes as a complete surprise to see that her new friend and fellow competitor Javier (a delightfully natural newcomer, J.R. Villarreal) lives a vastly different existence than hers in upscale Woodland Oaks. Perhaps it was her belief that Javier, as a Latino, would just naturally live in a squalid neighborhood as she did, but to find him living in his extremely well-to-do manse is a bit challenging for the young lady. Akeelah, however, accepts this with the same grace she does the challenge of spelling p-u-l-c-h-r-i-t-u-d-e.

There is a momentum to Akeelah and the Bee that propels the film along briskly to its forgone conclusion that, even if it seems as predestined as The Karate Kid or Rudy, isn’t nearly as important as the journey along the way. Some may quibble that the ending is trite, but I would remind them that there was never any doubt that Dorothy would make it home in The Wizard of Oz either. It was the trip along the Yellow Brick Road that made Dorothy a better person, and I truly believe that the “trip” though this year of Akeelah’s life will make anyone who sees it better for having taken the journey, regardless of their age or background.

One of the greatest gifts of Akeelah and the Bee is that it is an inspirational tale that could easily be dismissed as a fable about “the little African American girl who could” but it doesn’t reach for that simple of a goal. Yes, Akeelah and her family are black, as are her friends
and her primary competitors in the competition are Latino and Asian, but this is not a movie about race, even though it is not ignored, as it would be foolhardy to do so. Rather, it is a movie about finding what’s right inside of yourself and learning not to be afraid to express it, even when it seems it is an impossible dream to achieve. And that is something we could all use a little reminding about now and then.

If you are looking for a movie that is quite a honey, comb the papers all you want but I’m telling you right now you won’t find a sweeter treat than this one at the Essex Cinemas.

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