Its top asset is young Keke Palmer, who plays the title character (Akeelah, not the Bee) with aplomb and surprising depth. Her face registers the worry and weariness that afflict Akeelah, a student at South L.A.'s Crenshaw Middle School who is too smart to be confined to such a poorly funded institution, and who has grown bored with school and life at the early age of 11.
Her principal, the well-meaning Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), gets her to enter the school spelling bee, where she excels to an alarming degree. Welch worries she is too untrained to go very far in the spelling bee circuit, but Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, in full sensei mode) -- a former teacher whose association with the school is not well-explained -- senses that the Force is strong with this one. Under his tutelage, perhaps she can become great.
Soon Akeelah is at Larabee's house regularly to train and study, and she slowly makes her way up the ranks: first the district bee, then the regionals, on to the national competition in Washington D.C. But her mother, a put-upon single mom played by Angela Bassett with more conviction than the character deserves, is unsupportive at first, reasoning that Akeelah shouldn't be devoting so much time to just one school subject.
I question whether any parent -- especially one whose other child is flirting with gang activity -- would be ANGRY that her daughter was competing in spelling bees. But I guess inspiring, ennobling stories of dedication and triumph have to have obstacles, so Mom is obligated by the mechanics of the plot to be one. Rest assured, she sees the light eventually, and does that movie thing where she shows up late to a competition and catches Akeelah's eye from the stage.
Writer/director Doug Atchison knows from watching the documentary "Spellbound" that spelling bees can be exciting, suspenseful events. But preparing for them? Boring. That doesn't stop Atchison from trying, though, going to absurd lengths like giving Larabee hyper-intense speeches like this: "The bee is a tough nut. I've seen it chew kids up and spit them out!"
And I laughed right out loud during the training montage, where Akeelah jumps rope to help get the rhythm of spelling (and, perhaps, because they had to find SOMETHING action-oriented for her to do). I expected her to run up the art museum steps next, or maybe yell for Adrian, or tell Mick to cut her. For that matter, it seemed like only a matter of time before Larabee would teach her the finer points of waxing on and waxing off.
All of this falsely manufactured drama for the training -- and then the bee scenes themselves are curiously non-dramatic and slow. They're certainly not suspenseful; the outcomes are foregone conclusions. (Also a no-brainer: When Akeelah gets too involved with her fellow spellers, who come from upper-class families, she will neglect her homegirls and appear to them to have "sold out.") And though the film overflows with supporting characters -- fellow bee participants, teachers and so forth -- only Akeelah herself has any dimensions.
I respect the film for being wholesome and upright, and for presenting an alternative to the lifestyles we usually see depicted in films about urban African-American families. It has a positive message. I just wish there were one element of it -- just one! -- that was fresh or original.