A review of “Akeelah and the Bee” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: **

Rating: PG for some language

Run Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

 

 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record I can’t abide “inspiration” packaged in cloying convention. “Bee” utilizes every cliché in the book to hammer its point home with maximum sugar content.

Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is your standard bright under-achiever, a precocious African American eleven-year old from south L.A. with an exceptional gift for words. Despite her determination to blend in with the average kids Akeelah’s aptitude arouses the interest of school principal Welch (Curtis Armstrong) and aesthete scholar Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who agrees to tutor her.

Need I say more? Akeelah wins a series of local spelling bees and lands herself smack in the middle of the holy grail of spelling, The Scripps National Bee. But not before tussling with the rigorous Larabee over the methods to her madness. In a “surprise” move Larabee decides he has done enough for Akeelah and cuts her loose before the big show.

It takes a village, and Akeelah’s community – fringe characters one and all – rally ‘round her cry for help, doing their level best with flash-cards and well-wishes, inspired by the courage and inspiration of one little girl. S-i-g-h.

On a side note Akeelah’s mother Tanya (Angela Bassett) strenuously objects to Akeelah’s participation in this flighty intellectual pursuit, layering on “tension” and emotional stress. Along the way Akeelah confronts the harsh realities of her insular world and discovers that true friendship comes from the heart. U-g-h.

Stereotypes abound, from the Asian speller whose authoritarian father prizes victory over happiness to Tanya’s world-weary suspicion of life outside the narrow barriers of bitter single parent.

I’d like to be more charitable to this timely melodrama about perseverance and respect but it smacks of a middling ABC After-School Special with none of the special. The Bee thing has been done to death (“Spellbound”, “Bee Season”) and it’s been done better, especially on stage in the side-splitting “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” now making its bow in San Francisco.

Fishburne, who also produced, should know better. To my surprise (and dismay) he sticks to the hackneyed script like white on glue, contributing little of his trademark sting. A couple of performances stand above the rest, in particular that of the guileless Palmer – who faces her adolescent hurts with grudging grace -- and junior speller Javier (J.R. Villarreal) whose refreshing candor and unwavering support are a much-needed breath of fresh air.  

The climax just barely pulls “Akeelah” through, crossing the finish line with buckets of tears and maximum manipulation. S-c-h-m-a-l-t-z.