Akeelah and the Bee
Reviewed in May 2006
Director: Doug Atchison. Cast: Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, J.R. Villarreal, Sahara Garey, Curtis Armstrong, Sean Michael, Tzi Ma, Erica Hubbard, Lee Thompson Young, Julito McCullum, Eddie Steeples, Dalia Phillips, Wolfgang Bodison. Screenplay: Doug Atchison.

Photo © 2006 Lionsgate Films/2929 Productions/
Starbucks Entertainment
I saw Akeelah and the Bee one day after seeing Tsotsi, the much-ballyhooed, Oscar-winning film that strains, strains to depict the spiritual redemption of a young proto-thug on the streets of South Africa. Mechanistically ushering us from its baiting scenarios of violence to its bathetic images of pop salvation, Tsotsi blockades its young actor, Presley Chweneyagae, from giving anything like a performance. Clearly, Chweneyagae was cast for his gaze—startlingly severe in the early chapters, but able to switch into a second gear of tremulous uncertainty. It can't be said, though, that Chweneyagae was cast for the depth of his screen persona, and certainly the film doesn't seem able or even all that inclined to imbue him with one. In a film driven by the thesis that Tsotsi is a pawn of a life-killing social system, the movie itself is a soul-flattening narrative system, calculated on broad parabolic terms that stay oblivious to almost any particularity or spirit in the young lead.

How wonderfully refreshing, then, to follow Tsotsi with the modest-to-a-fault Akeelah and the Bee, at whose center we find not a child with a suggestive facial mask but a credible young woman, lively and unique, who modulates her playing and inhabits her role, and who is given ample room by her script, her director, and her classy, established co-stars to breathe life into her story rather than hitting a bunch of thematic marks. Keke Palmer is a pip as Akeelah, a seventh-grade girl in a struggling Los Angeles school who has a gleaming gift for spelling, but who worries about the costs of revealing herself to be so gifted, whether to friends or to teachers or even to herself. Adding to her predicament, she may not be allowed by her tough, pragmatic mother (Angela Bassett), a single parent who's already stretching to keep several kids in line, to invest the sort of time and energy that would be required to train properly for the spelling-bee circuit; she may not be allowed by her demanding but distant spelling tutor (Laurence Fishburne) to attain excellence without sacrificing or dulling other parts of who she is. Akeelah and the Bee is nothing to speak of visually or formally, and though the plot unsettles our expectations at a few key moments, the movie is meant to be assuring and accessible. The crisis of this gifted child is frank and on the surface, not metaphysically limned like that of the Flora Cross character in the interesting and underrated Bee Season. Instead, the distinguishing mark of this movie is that it embraces all of its characters and keeps its eyes open to how the overt, even predictable ramifications of its basic scenario are still the kind of thing that make life complicated: preconceptions are tested, feelings get hurt, people surprise themselves in good and bad ways. The whole movie, scored to Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, and the like, makes frank emotional appeals but it never pleads or cheats. All of these virtues return us, again and again, to young Keke Palmer: she is very good at listening on screen, and she has thought about her lines instead of just memorizing them, and so it makes sense that Fishburne and Bassett act with her instead of just propping her up, and it makes sense that Akeelah's worries and decisions always feel genuine, even when, from a screenwriting perspective, they earn middling marks for originality. Akeelah and the Bee, however eager to entertain and even to model some ways of living life, doesn't wheedle us for our love or our devotion, and perhaps for that reason, it earns both. The film is about the rewards of modesty, sincerity, application, and spirit. The genial professionalism of the movie and the easy, believable radiance of its young star are terrific not just as conduits but as living symbols for that message. Grade: B

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