“Akeelah” Not Just Another Spelling Bee Movie

What, another spelling bee movie?

Yes, but “Akeelah and the Bee” has Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Basset, and a talented newcomer named Keke Palmer.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been the subject of two films recently, one a 2004 documentary (“Spellbound”) and the other a 2005 flight of mystic fantasy (“Bee Season”).

Writer-director Doug Atchinson has chosen a middle ground. “Akeelah” is fiction, but it is rooted in the reality of struggling inner city schools and inspired by the real National Spelling Bee in Washington and the kids who become hometown heroes for their academic prowess.

The title character of Akeelah Anderson is played by Keke Palmer, an actress/singer who made her movie debut with a small part in “Barbershop 2” at age 9.

Keke is now 11, as is her character, who comes from a poor single-parent home in South Central Los Angeles. Akeelah was inspired by her late father to be a good reader and speller, and when she scores 100 percent on a spelling test she didn’t even study for, her teacher thinks she may be a candidate for the local spelling bee competition.

Akeelah’s mother Tanya (Angela Bassett) seems oddly indifferent when her daughter voices interest in a spelling bee. A hard-working nurse, she thinks spelling bees are for rich white kids only.

At the urging of her school’s principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), Akeelah begins private coaching with Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, who also produces).

Larabee is not impressed with Akeelah’s street attitude. He insists she speak proper English in his presence and be strictly prompt to all their sessions.

When Akeelah takes a bus across town and practices with Javier (JR Villarreal), a cute fellow spelling contender, mom finds out and forbids her from further spelling bee activity.

It’s hard to imagine a mother with the attitude of Bassett’s Tanya, but the story needs some dramatic tension other than the contest itself, and Akeelah’s struggle first with herself and her peers, then her mother, gives it a “Rocky-” like underdog quality, and little Keke Palmer is wonderfully naturalistic- especially in her creation of a custom mnemonic system

Fishburne plays his disillusioned professor with great gravity and dignity, and it becomes quite clear that Akeelah has become a lot more than just a pupil to him.

The pint-sized supporting actors are quite good, especially JR Villarreal as Akeelah’s best friend and potential romantic interest and Sean Mitchell as the brainiac Asian kid who is the number-one contender because his father has browbeaten him into submission.

“Akeelah and the Bee” is fiction, but it holds out the hope that any child, regardless of background or material advantages, can triumph in the battle of wits that is the National Spelling Bee.

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