We all fell in love with word crunchers through the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Watching little kids get put through self-induced and parental intellectual hell inspired awe, sympathy, and a new respect for a literate faction of population that doesn't normally gain that much publicity.
But spinning off a fictional story from this reality has its challenges. Now that we've all seen the real thing, a technical accuracy has to be met. There's also the difficult balance between maintaining realism and building an entertaining enough story to keep you focused.
So our little titular 11-year-old heroine has an obsession with words that she inherited from her deceased father. Her principal and teachers remark on her abilities and keep trying to prod her along the road to success, but fear of her peers' censure keeps her quiet about her gift. She receives nerdish bullying from schoolmates and siblings alike so is hesitant to explore any further. At the threat of detention, she attends her school's first spelling bee and the jolt of acknowledging her intelligence pushes her to want to go forward.
The stellar acting in Akeelah and the Bee certainly strives to support this well-meaning tale. Laurence Fishburne's affectionately brooding coach bounces off working-class mom Angela Bassett well over brassy little Akeelah's (newcomer Keke Palmer) development. The issues of her racial and economic background are gracefully woven into subtle dialogue and camera glances of her being the only black, non-financially stable, child among the contestants, and the only person in her community to have received media attention.
The trouble comes in the form of repetitive saccharine that seeps through most of the more dramatic conversations, and especially through the extraordinarily cheesy soundtrack and music composition that's reminiscent of a Lifetime special. So much of the powerful themes of racism and classism in the film are handled with such quiet provocation that the heartfelt conversations between characters have a tendency to feel overlong and forced.
The most beautifully developed character actually turns out to be Mom, and writer/director Doug Atchison deserves immense respect for finally writing a three-dimensional single mother. A mother who has problems keeping up with her kids due to an insane work schedule, and struggles to balance fear and encouragement for their difficulties in an outside world she's grown cynical with. When Tanya Anderson is asking her daughter what type of punishment should be incurred for her lying instead of simply letting her achievements disregard discipline, their resolving embrace is genuinely moving.
Akeelah and the Bee is an inspirational story of striving for your dreams amidst internalized doubt and self-defeating tendencies. It's an engaging profile of how one person can make a difference in their community and how each of us sometimes stops ourselves from growing or becoming what we wish to be. If Atchison had trusted his material a little bit more to create the emotional reaction he was seeking instead of trying to lead the audience through extraneous exposition and sappy background music, it would have been an even better experiece.