Akeelah and the Bee piles on clichs and shamelessly manipulates emotions. It is, in turn, corny, unbelievable, and formulaic.
It's also thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.
The success of the film rests mainly on the small shoulders of the mesmerizing Keke Palmer, who plays 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson, a bright child stuck in a school that doesn't challenge her and a neighborhood that breeds failure.
She lives in South Central Los Angeles with a sister who has a baby, a brother who is attracted to gangs, and a mother (Angela Bassett), who works a lot and has little time to nurture her family.
In a world where gunfire and the sound of helicopters overhead are the norm, Akeelah has three main comforts: her friendship with Georgia, who wants to be a flight attendant; her room, with its books and computer, and memories of her late father, who instilled in her a love of learning.
That love doesn't translate to school; Akeelah skips class a lot and is close to failing. But her principal (Curtis Armstrong), determined to bring some pride to his school, gently blackmails Akeelah into taking part in the school spelling bee, which she wins hands-down.
He persuades her to go to an inter-school bee, where she meets the engaging Javier (J.R. Villarreal), who shows her the ropes of spelling bees, becomes her pal, and opens doors to a world where achievement is celebrated.
When she chances to see the National Spelling Bee on ESPN, Akeelah becomes entranced by the contest and determined to get there. (She's not the only one who's entranced; there have been at least two movies and a Broadway hit about spelling bees in the past several years.)
Akeelah must overcome a lot of barriers thrust in her way, not the least of which is her mother, who has no time for spelling bees and sees no benefit for a child who is flunking out of school.
But Akeelah has allies, too, including her principal, a teacher, and Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a reclusive college professor who agrees to become Akeelah's coach. It is Larabee who introduces her to the concept of excellence. From the moment she steps on his property, he orders her to dispense with "ghetto talk." He teaches her syntax, word origins, and context. Instead of rote memory, he has her read the works of great authors, including black historical figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, subtly instilling a racial pride in her.
As Akeelah makes her way through the various bees she needs to conquer, the pressures build and she threatens to crack, but writer-director Doug Atchison is adept at showing how tiny bits of encouragement go a long way.
On paper, Akeelah and the Bee shouldn't work. It's filled with stereotypes, coincidences, and stock characters. But Atchison has assembled a cast that, led by a child, makes the material far better than it should be.
It's the kind of movie that, when stereotypes, clichs, or inconsistencies smack you in the face - and that happens a lot - it doesn't matter a bit. You'll brush it away and continue watching a film that makes you want to cheer.
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