My love affair with writing began with competitive spelling in grade school and evolved right in to middle school where I built my obsession with telling stories. I was always fond of the Scripps spelling bee and I always sought to maybe make it there someday. But you know… puberty happened. In either case, it‘s refreshing to see films in contemporary and modern that portray spelling bees as pure sport. There are more and more movies spotlighting the mental demand of spelling from 2002’s “Spellbound” to “Bee Season,” to “Spelling the Dream.”
Akeelah, an 11-year-old girl living in South Los Angeles, discovers she has a talent for spelling, which she hopes will take her to the National Spelling Bee. Despite her mother’s objections, Akeelah doesn’t give up on her goal. She finds help in the form of a mysterious teacher, and along with overwhelming support from her community Akeelah might just have what it takes to make her dream come true.
Doug Atchinson’s “Akeelah and the Bee” will speak to the audience with big dreams, especially those of whom are stuck in public school. As someone who has grown up in the Bronx and attended public schools with overcrowded class rooms, empathy towards education, and dangerous neighborhoods, I can perfectly relate to the film. And as someone who has only experienced one teacher who influenced my education, I found this to be one of the most realistic depictions of inner-city education and lack thereof, and the struggle of learning in a community that places it as a last priority.
Atchinson’s screenplay presents an appealing central character who also takes delight in spelling words as a sense of self-fulfillment. Akeelah is a confident and fascinating central heroine who spends much of her time perfecting spelling with Laurence Fishburne’s mentor character, and the journey amounts to inspiring drama and suspense. For a film in 2006 to tell children that spelling, educating yourself, and mastering a skill should not only be lauded, but rewarded, and utterly influenced upon the studios is truly admirable.
“Akeelah and the Bee” is aimed toward children but it presents a great framework upon which all children’s films should be made. The screenplay shows that you can appeal to educating audiences without puppets, or purple dinosaurs. “Akeelah and the Bee” will inspire children or teenagers to want to learn and influence its audience to want to strive at something they can achieve. “Akeelah and the Bee” is an excellent film mainly because its primary characters are not only down to Earth and awfully familiar, but the child actors in particular never become caricatures, or gimmicks.
They’re never relegated as cartoon characters. Star Keke Palmer is utterly endearing as the well-adjusted and head strong Akeelah who can never really decide which life she wants to pursue, but is well aware that she has to win the spelling bee, or at least go as far as she can. When Akeelah spells, the audience is on baited breath, and you can’t help but cheer for her. J.R. Villarreal is great as the likable and charming Javier, while Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett re-unite both giving rousing performances in different veins.
Fishburne (always excellent!) is the mentor Dr. Larabee who takes a special interest in Akeelah and teaches her to play by the rules and enhances her spelling abilities, while Bassett is strong as Akeelah’s mother Tanya, who discovers her daughter’s love for learning.
Director Atchison knows how to mount and alleviate the tension on screen well, and succeeds in making the spelling bee a sport that can keep audiences glued to their seats. A film like this has to be seen. It’s beautiful, it’s encouraging, and it really inspires its audience to commit to something positive.