Akeelah Anderson wants desperately to be like other girls, but blending into anonymity is no easy thing when you're brilliant. She shrinks when she makes perfect grades and is mortified of being labeled a "brainiac." Despite all her efforts, however, the 11 year old is unable to hide. Akeelah routinely misses class and latches on to the urban slang of her neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles, but it's of no use. The girl can't help it; she's smart.
Akeelah's chief talent is a gift for words, particularly when it comes to spelling. She elevates spelling to a special event, spitting out each letter, keeping time by slapping her hand against hip, an action of rhythm and fluidity that is part sport, part rap.
Akeelah and the Bee is hardly the first movie about the triumph of the human spirit. Hell, it's not even the first movie to do it through spelling bees; the wonderful 2002 documentary Spellbound focused on the ultra-competitive universe of the bee. And like most movies that make a concerted effort to inspire, Akeelah and the Bee is saddled with its share of clichés and contrivances.
And yet the flaws don't matter very much. Like the fictitious Akeelah, the movie refuses to fade intro the background, presenting instead a charming and poignant story that (mostly) earns its sentimentality.
When a beleaguered inner-city middle school kicks off its first-ever spelling bee, the school principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), recruits Akeelah (Keke Palmer) to enter the contest. She obliges grudgingly, but soon enough she is swept up in hopes of actually making it to the nationals in Washington, D.C. Mr. Welch even sets up Akeelah with her own private coach, the meticulous and no-nonsense college professor Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).
A bona fide hero's journey (Joseph Campbell would be proud), Akeelah must tackle some big hurdles to realize her dream. The most formidable obstacle: The skepticism of her mother (Angela Bassett), an overworked widow who is straining to raise three kids on her own.
Writer-director Doug Atchison gets so much right here, it is downright jarring when he stumbles. A pat contrivance bonds Larabee with Akeelah, whose father died from a stray gunshot when the girl was 6. The film is an obvious labor of love -- Atchison was inspired to write the script after tutoring children in downtown Los Angeles -- but he occasionally tugs a bit too much on the heartstrings. When Akeelah's quest to the nationals becomes a matter of community pride, the director opts for a montage sugary enough to cause instant diabetes.
Nevertheless, Atchison's genuine affection for these characters ultimately outweighs the occasional sappiness. Dr. Larabee instructs his young pupil to read a celebrated quote by Marianne Williamson: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. … We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be?" It is a lesson that Akeelah and the movie take seriously.
The acting throughout is superb. Fishburne and Bassett are always excellent, but, in the end, Akeelah and the Bee easily belongs to Keke Palmer, who manages to be endearing without being cloying. It is a remarkable performance.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the DVD is a top-notch transfer. The picture is sharp, crisp and nicely detailed. Skin tones are realistic and there is no discernible noise, dirt or other defects.
As you might guess with a movie in which the big climax involves children spelling words correctly, Akeelah and the Bee is a heavily dialogue-driven flick. Even so, the 5.1 Dolby Digital track is solid and makes effective and subtle use of sound separation. A 2.0 Dolby Digital is also available, as are subtitles in Spanish and English.
A commentary track with Atchison and/or Keke Palmer would have been a terrific addition, but alas, it was not to be. The extras included are passable, but well below the standards of a movie of this caliber.
By far the most impressive bonus is the 22-minute The Making of Akeelah and the Bee. In interviews with Atchison, the producers and the film's entire cast, the viewer gets a greater appreciation of just how near and dear a project this was for the filmmakers. It is also interesting to learn the importance that the studio, Lions Gate, placed on finding the right casting choice for the title role, despite the fact that she was an unknown.
The other featurettes don't fare so well. Clocking in at four-minutes, 20-seconds, Keke & Doug: Two Peas in a Pod ostensibly shows the close relationship between the director and his young actress, but much of its footage is lifted from the making-of documentary. Similarly, the seven-minute Inside the Mind of Akeelah is a weak recap of the character's emotional range. Both mini-documentaries are aimed at younger viewers, but neither one is likely to shed much in the way of light.
The DVD contains seven deleted scenes. For the most part, they are portions of scenes that were trimmed from the final print. "Flashback Memories of Dad," in which Akeelah remembers the violent circumstances of her dad's violent death, is embarrassingly heavy-handed. Thankfully, it was excised from the picture.
Oh, and there's a three-minute, 15-second music video for Palmer singing "All My Girlz," which appears on the soundtrack. Forgettable stuff. The DVD also includes a one-minute, 49-second gag reel and trailers for Durango Kids, Arthur's Missing Pal and Madea's Family Reunion.
A film that boasts well-drawn characters and plenty of heart, Akeelah and the Bee deserves a wide audience. While the DVD's extras fall a bit short of expectations, the movie alone merits checking out.