Dir: Doug Atchison. US.2006. 112mins.
The story of a young girl's unlikely journey from anunder-funded school to the National Spelling Bee finals, Akeelah And The Bee is an inspirational dramapowered by template familiarity and an abundance of earnestness. The winner ofthe 2000 Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting competitionsponsored by the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, writer-directorDoug Atchison's film pulls heartstrings possibly too effectively. But itlocates genuine feeling with such sincerity that it stands poised to catch firewith early summer niche audiences, open to emotive counter-programming againstbigger-budget flash.
While a verydifferent type of movie, one of the things last summer's documentary smash March Of The Penguins proved was thatthere is a market for heartfelt, broad-audience films beyond the moretraditional, big studio family fare. Though lacking that film's novelty, Akeelah And The Beecould easily emerge as a low-lying, long-playing arthousesuccess, given proper coddling and circumstance.
Whileinternational theatrical prospects are likely somewhat muted ' the 2003spelling bee documentary Spellbound was a hit for ThinkFilm,but only grossed $1.7m of its total $7.5m haul overseas ' Lions Gate is wiselymarketing Akeelah And The Bee on itsunderdog/inspirational laurels, a tack that should help the film easily outpaceFox Searchlight's dour Bee Season.
A uniquemarketing partnership with coffee beverage giant Starbucks - a producing entityon the film - will also help establish name awareness, and quite possibly drivepositive word-of-mouth that could help Akeelah And The Bee catch fire in just the sort of high-incomehouseholds that typically help shape arthouse hits.
The film's plotis a relatively straightforward and chronological telling of personal triumph,charting the progression of Akeelah Anderson(newcomer Keke Palmer), a bright but somewhat shy11-year-old girl, through a handful of city and regional contests to the nationalfinals in Washington.
An excellentstudent with spotty attendance, Akeelah hails fromone of the poorer school districts in Los Angeles, and is goaded into enteringher class' spelling bee by her principal, Mr Welch(Curtis Armstrong), desperate to affect change and improve his school's image.
Despite theobjection of her mother Tanya (Angela Bassett), Akeelahpresses forward with the guidance and assistance of Mr. Welch's friend,forthright former college professor Dr Josh Larabee(Laurence Fishburne). As she meets and befriends fellowcompetitors who have in some cases been training for years, Akeelahovercomes self-doubt and rallies the proud residents of her community behindher, scoring a spot in the finals and competing for the championship.
Some of the filmis shot on location, helping give it a rooted sense of place. While not grittyby any means, these passages help highlight the difference between Akeelah's world and the more privileged upbringing of herfellow contestants. The film is likewise studded with occasional, incisivedialogue that helps underline the racial and class divides under themicroscope, such as when Akeelah says to herprincipal of Dr Larabee: "He lives in thisneighborhood' I thought you said he was important."
While the movieis less successful in its conveyance of the passage of time (it ostensiblytakes place over the course of a year), Atchison succeeds in the savvy castingof the kids' roles, and his work with them. Palmer deserves special praise forher natural work as Akeelah; she brings a real sympathyto a role that could be cloying if just played for precocity. It's young JRVillarreal, though ' as Javier, an outgoing fellow contestant who develops acrush on Akeelah and helps root her onward in onlythe manner that a peer can ' who steals the show.
Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, reunited from What's Love Got ToDo With It, do not share many scenes together, but each successfully fulfilltheir function within the narrative. As a professor still emotionally damagedby the loss of his own child and wife, Fishburneapproximates mournful gravitas chiefly through equally clipped and hushedtones, a technique he's plied many times before.
In the moredifficult but better sketched role, Bassett must show both a single mother'stough love as well as a yielding realisation that Akeelah needs her unconditional support. That the filmdoesn't force a love connection between the two is appreciated.
Out of the Blue Entertainment
Cinema Gypsy Productions
Lions Gate Films International
Nancy Hult Ganis
M David Mullen
Warren Alan Young
Sean Michael Afable