Akeelah on the Loose

“Akeelah and the Bee” buzzed about a phobia I never realized existed: fear of greatness. It’s the kryptonite that cripples the movie’s heroine Akeelah – an 11 year-old speller from South LA. The fact that this phobia exists tells us something disheartening about her school. Mediocrity reigns like a bully and popularity is a selective (cough!) witch. Greatness is not so great; it’s a handicap. It’s a huge target on your back. So when Akeelah evinces spelling skills and wins the school’s inaugural bee, she doesn’t spill bliss. Rather, she’s gutted with piercing embarrassment. Now, the whole school knows what a big nerd she is.

Akeelah is played by Keke Palmer. And so far, it’s the best female performance I’ve seen all year. If the role had fallen to the hands of an ordinary actress, Akeelah would come across as a nerdy girl with an attitude. Palmer, on the other hand, is skilled in channeling Akeelah’s vulnerability. Despite Akeelah’s rough exterior, Palmer internally shows us one scared girl, who makes a compelling conquest of courage and knowledge. It’s a great character to root for and Palmer is the perfect vehicle for Akeelah to take flight.

Of course, flight requires some wind beneath the wings. In supporting roles, the combo of Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne is solid. Every time they’re together in a movie (“Boyz N The Hood” and “What’s Love Got To Do With it?”) – the result has been memorable. Laurence Fishburne has somehow adapted himself in mentor roles well (See “Boyz N The Hood” and some little film called “The Matrix”) and in this movie, he’s admirable as Akeelah’s no-nonsense tutor. Bassett, on the other hand, is cast as an obstacle – a mother who deems a spelling bee as low priority. Usually “the unsupportive parent” is such a cliché, but Bassett keeps it real. Rather than a potential villainess, I saw her more as a scared mother who hides behind a tough exterior shell. Hey, wait a minute. That sounds like somebody I already described. Is there a theme going on here?

To me, “Akeelah and the Bee” isn’t only about spelling bees, but also a beeline of frightened characters attempting to loosen their shackles of fear. Writer and director Doug Atchinson is smart to make Fear as the ultimate villain. Sure, some characters are written as stereotypical antagonists (female bullies, the intimidating no-smile Asian kid and his all-serious father), but they resemble humans more than cartoons. Overall, “Akeelah and the Bee” is a fun and entertaining family drama. Even if it may come off a bit as a fantasy, it never loses its learned wisdom from reality. It reminds us that Fear bullies us all. So why fight back alone when we can all team up and defeat it together?

Grade: A-

CAST
Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, J.R. Villarreal, and Curtis Armstrong
Screenplay by
Doug Atchison
Directed by
Doug Atchison
Rated PG for some language
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