Akeelah and the Bee
Have you ever seen the film about the young kid from the wrong side of the tracks who overcomes every imaginable challenge and wins the great prize as we all cry and laugh at the same time? Well, welcome to this year's version - it's called "Akeelah and the Bee," and it's about an 11-year-old girl named Akeelah, living in South Los Angeles and struggling just to survive a life that puts every obstacle you can think of right in front of her. But guess what - she has a great talent, and that talent is going to take her very, very far. What's the talent? It's spelling. She has an innate feeling for how to spell even the most complex words, and thanks to a good teacher and a supportive principal she - wait a minute; you've seen this before?
Well, yes you have, even including the marvelous documentary of 2003 "Spellbound." So can you spell cliché? How about stereotype? Because "Akeelah and the Bee" is riddled with clichés. And stuffed to overflowing with stereotypes. But there's a reason clichés and stereotypes exist, and that is that we respond to them. They still have power over us, they still can make us cry and laugh, and that's what "Akeelah and the Bee" does.
The school principal introduces Akeelah to the famous Dr. Larrabee, played by Laurence Fishburne, recently retired from teaching at USC, who once upon a time was a great contender at the National Spelling Bee. He and Akeelah form a very prickly relationship when he agrees to be her coach for the city, state and national competitions. But her mother - Angela Bassett - is opposed to her competing. Why? Because, like every black girl in a white world, she'll just fail, and she doesn't want her daughter to repeat what she went through.
There's more here as well, but you get the idea. Along the way Akeelah makes friends with a Latino boy named Javier, who's also a competitor - and she learns to trust herself and her talent as she works up the ladder to the Nationals. And yes, if you hadn't already guessed, Dr. Larrabee is harboring a painful secret that he won't reveal until we get to the penultimate crisis of the film. And we can even hope that Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, who played an estranged couple in the great "Boyz N The Hood," might even get back together here in "Akeelah and the Bee." That would be one hell of a cliché, now wouldn't it.
But as I say, these things have an undeniable power, and the fact is that by the end of the movie you will be thrilled and enchanted, and maybe even in tears of joy. Writer-director Doug Atchison knows how to take us along on the ride, and young Keke Palmer, who plays Akeelah in a brilliant piece of casting, is so natural, so unmannered, so lovable, that we find ourselves rooting for her every step of the way. She doesn't let us down.