Akeelah And The Bee
by Scott MendelsonAbout this time every year, the critics and film journalists crow about just how awful the year has thus far been. As they talk up the fall's Oscar contenders, they bemoan the alleged lack of quality summer fare and winter wonders. Alas, for once, I agree with them this year. The film calendar of 2006 has been a vast desert wasteland of near misses (Mission: Impossible 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Hollywoodland), brain-dead popcorn filler (Da Vinci Code, Everyone's Hero, World Trade Center), and truly heartbreaking screw-ups (Superman Returns and Lady In The Water). Never in my life can I remember a whole year with so few winners, a paucity to the point where good, high-quality, professional entertainments are heralded as masterpieces (The Illusionist, V For Vendetta, Little Miss Sunshine). But there is one honest to goodness masterpiece that was released this year. In all likelihood you didn't see it. It comes out on DVD on September 5th. Don't make the same mistake twice.
The plot: Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer, already showing range with a completely different character from this year's Madea's Family Reunion) is a middle-schooler in a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood. Living by her mother (Angela Bassett, terrific per norm) following the murder of her father a few years ago, she tries to deal with the various struggles of growing up poor in a school system that can't provide as well as peers who scorn those who dare to use their brain. Through happenstance, she ends up winning her school spelling bee and is encouraged by her principal (Curtis Armstrong, playing it straight) to partake in further levels of competition. Although she has a knack for spelling, she finds she needs tutelage. Enter Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, back in low-key mentor mode), a former UCLA professor and spelling bee champion who reluctantly agrees to coach her.
That's all you get. The plot alternates between tried and true convention and shocking surprise. Knowing full well the expectations of the genre he is in, writer/director Doug Atchison grounds the film in a mild gritty realism, while being unafraid of high emotions and subtle character shadings. While the film earns its PG, there are undertones of the poor, often unsafe streets that Akeelah lives on. Refreshingly, there isn't the obligatory homicide that often ends the second act in such films, having a random friend/relative get killed to show the down and out hero what he/she is fighting for (Step Up, Coach Carter, Poetic Justice, Gridiron Gang, etc). Despite the snippet of the mean streets, there are no real villains. Even the film's representative for gang culture (Eddie Staples, from My Name Is Earl) gets a charming, redemptive scene of humanity and warmth.
Yes, there are a few clichés here and there, but clichés become such because, when done correctly, or subverted slightly, they work. Yes, Dr. Larabee has his own demons to face down, Akeelah's mother is reluctant to support her at first, and Akeelah's best friend feels left out, but these worn-devices are resolved in unexpected ways (and at different points in the story than you'd expect). Even the climactic spelling bee match has several potent surprises, concluding with easily the most original and classiest ending to a sports film since Tin Cup. On a slightly related note, why is it that allegedly Oscar-worthy underdog stories like Cinderella Man that target 'mature adults' often paint their opposing athletes as simplistic, inhuman monsters, while alleged 'kiddie fare' allows the hero's opponents to be fully fleshed out characters and worthy adversaries?
In the end, Akeelah And The Bee works. The characters are sympathetic and fully dimensional. The story, while slightly familiar, is full of rich plot twists and character development. And the acting is top-notch across the board (perhaps, with this, What's Love Got To Do With It, and the play Fences, Bassett and Fishburne should be required to work together once every few years). In a year of disappointments, Akeelah And The Bee dares to be far better than it has any right to be. It is simply a terrific movie and all-ages entertainment of the best variety. Unfortunately, due to the early theatrical release date and lackluster box-office, its Oscar chances are all but non-existent. Nonetheless, as of this late date in 2006, Akeelah And The Bee is easily the best film of the year.