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"Akeelah and the Bee"

Directed by Doug Hutchison.
Written by Doug Hutchison.
Starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, J.R. Villarreal and Angela Bassett.
Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  5/15/06


You know what's coming, but if your execution is flawless, it's still fun to watch.  Such is the case with "Akeelah and the Bee", which takes "feel-good movie" to a new level by combining the recent interest in the National Spelling Bee with a grounded story featuring one girl's rise to the top.

Keke Palmer plays Akeelah, an 11-year-old living in a rough neighborhood in Southern California and attending a school that is of the run-down variety; the school administrators, led by Principal Welch (Curtis Armstrong), are more worried about getting better school programs than they are with the silly fact that the girls' bathroom stalls don't have any doors.  She has a natural talent with spelling but suppresses it amongst her classmates for fear that she will be exposed as a geek; she even skips classes to try & give the impression that she's really just another one of the kids.

All of that changes when Welch and a few other teachers push Akeelah to rein in that spelling talent and enter the school spelling bee, and from there, she attempts to ride all the way to the national finals in D.C. with the help of a spelling coach with a past (Laurence Fishburne) and her hard-working single mom (Angela Bassett), who initially thinks Akeelah should just skip the whole shebang.

Even though I had seen "Spellbound" and had been captivated by that documentary's drama based on the lives of the kids that competed, I didn't feel like the material in "Akeelah and the Bee" was retread because of the relationship between Akeelah and her coach.  Fishburne--essentially playing his now-legendary mentor role of Morpheus from "The Matrix" in a much less violent capacity--helps Akeelah understand language in a variety of different ways; Palmer is solid as the center of the storm.  All of the performances here are great, from the adults (highlighted by the always-great Tzi Ma as the father of one of the other spellers) to the kids, mainly Akeelah's impossibly-nice friend Javier (J.R. Villarreal) and her nemesis, Dylan (Sean Michael).

The pacing is also excellent, because in a film where you know that Akeelah is somehow going to end up in the nationals, you might have a tendency to get a little anxious waiting for the inevitable...writer/director Doug Hutchison (whose only other film credit is something called "The Pornographer", could this be ANY more different???) does a great job integrating the familiar family/class African-American story with the drama of spelling ridiculously-hard words correctly.  Stringing the story out over the course of a year, we get a number of spelling competitions, plus glimpses at the home life, Akeelah's struggles with her friends given newfound celebrity, light conversation about race, and some of the science behind trying to learn enough words to have a shot at winning the title.

And, "Akeelah and the Bee" features nothing objectionable, almost no violence, no foul language.  It's just about the perfect family film, and it helps that it is particularly well-made.  Check it out!

Rating:  Opening Weekend


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09