The day I write this, Akeelah and the Bee has an 84% postive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which basically makes me look like the biggest ass on the planet. “Winning!”, “Heartwarming”, “The feel-good movie of the year!”, “Can you say T-H-E-B-E-S-T-M-O-V-I-E-E-V-E-R-O-H-M-Y-G-O-D?!?!?” And I’m not really exaggerating that much. But the thing is, you can take all those quotes and attach them to the far superior Spellbound, the indie documentary that started the buzz about the bees (put that quote in your pipe and smoke it).
The perfectly nice, yet perfectly predictable Akeelah and the Bee stars cute and sassy Keke Palmer as Akeelah, a smart 11-year-old that lurks in the back of her South Central LA classes, doing poorly so as not to stand out to her peers. But this kid loves Scrabble and playing word games on her ‘puter at home, so it is hard for her to not ace her spelling tests at school, piquing interest from the principal and her teacher who encourage her to give the regional spelling bee a try. Of course Akeelah is brilliant, and we expect nothing less (considering the title of the film).
Akeelah is assigned a coach, played by Laurence Fishburne, a private man who obviously has a tragic secret because he has a photo in his home of a beautiful woman who isn’t around and stares at a child’s jump-rope for hours. He teaches Akeelah how to spell just about anything, and as pedestrian as these scenes are, some of the things he points out do make you go “ding!” in your head and wish you learned Latin when you were 11 (or, you know, whenever). If we all learned things like this, maybe most of us would be able to write in our native language. I’m just sayin’.
But as inspirational as certain scenes are, the movie never leaves in question that Akeelah will make it to the nationals, and her two peers from local LA schools will also conveniently make it into the upper echelons of the competition. The story’s progress is about as subtle as a hammer on your head. For instance, the camera constantly focuses on Akeelah pounding out the rhythm of a word by slapping her palm on her thigh. But we are supposed to believe that her coach doesn’t notice this technique until three-fourths through the film? Was he looking at the ceiling? Or thinking about the jump-rope again?
I’m not really a grinch. The kids in Akeelah, luckily, are entertaining for the most part, and the story is refreshingly free from swearing and violence and other crap that clogs popular culture these days. You can’t knock that. But the whole time I was watching Akeelah I found myself smiling at the screen—not because of the movie unspooling in front of me, but because I was remembering scenes out of Spellbound. That movie has real drama and tension, and is delightfully and unexpectedly hilarious (you think some of the kids are goofy in Akeelah, wait til you see the real thing). So grab a matinee of Akeelah, if you must, but I implore you to immediately rush out and rent Spellbound and watch the real thing.