America's got a buzz for spelling bees, or at least, for entertainment involving spelling bees. From the hit documentary "Spellbound," to the terrific book and far less-terrific film "Bee Season," to Broadway's musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," competitive spelling has claimed its place in pop culture. Last week it was even announced that the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee finals will move from its former home on ESPN to primetime on ABC. The revolution will be televised.
"Akeelah and the Bee," the wonderfully uplifting new film from writer/director Doug Atchison is the latest, and by far the best, entry into this genre, and it had its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
A shy, bright girl who attends Crenshaw Middle School, a rundown public school in South Los Angeles, 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson (superbly portrayed by Keke Palmer) has been singled out by her teacher to participate in the school's first spelling bee. "I ain't down for no spelling bee," is her answer, but when the principal threatens her with detention if she doesn't compete, she grudgingly agrees. She wins her school's crummy little bee, where words like "doubt" and "grovel" vanquish her competitors. As she's handed the blue ribbon, Laurence Fishburne appears, in the role of Professor Larabee, a Ph.D. on leave from UCLA. He steps forward and asks her to spell a list of much more difficult words, "prestidigitation" and "pulchritude" among them.
He stares at her in the same way that Mick looked at Rocky. She's his chance at redemption. Mr. Welch, the principal (Curtis Armstrong), has invited Larabee, a former National Spelling Bee competitor to come watch the bee as a kind of scouting expedition. The school is hurting for funds and Welch believes that if they can groom Akeelah and qualify her for the National Bee, the district will make much-needed repairs and improvements to the school.
When Akeelah is told that the next step is to represent her school at the regional bee, she balks. "Why would I want to represent a place with no doors on the bathrooms?" she asks, with the dead-on seriousness of a child who already has too much on her shoulders. Finally, she agrees and after barely scraping by at the regionals, and getting to the next level on a technicality, she accepts Larabee's offer of coaching.
Larabee's rigorous tutoring methods equip Akeelah with etymological understanding, mnemonic techniques and physical skills that will enable her to spell words she's never heard before, concentrate around tremendous distractions and mentally toughen up to meet the nation's best spellers on the big stage. Their coaching scenes are reminiscent of
"Akeelah and the Bee" is loaded with stereotypes - Akeelah's home life, for starters. She lives with her mother (Angela Bassett), who was widowed when Akeelah's father was shot on his way home from work. Her older sister is an unwed teenage mother and her brother is in a dangerous flirtation with drugs and gangs. Her competitors are mostly wealthy and white, except for one, Javier, who is wealthy and Hispanic. Spelling bee stage parents abound, and most of the spellers could be voted most likely to be chosen last for a sports team. Larabee has a soul-wrenching secret that makes him seem emotionless, but he's kind underneath his stern façade.
Still, despite this, the movie works beautifully. It's one of the best-feeling feel good films I can remember, and you'd have be a real curmudgeon to leave the theater without feeling inspired. Add to this mix an R&B soundtrack that includes spine-tinglers like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody" and this, perhaps the best spelling song ever, and you'll see why "Akeelah" is drawing fans like, well, bees to honey.