Some have their goals and their futures all mapped,
People who know where their aptitudes lie, but
Endless potential is often untapped,
Loath to step out and wholeheartedly try, but
Longing one day to catch somebody’s eye.
You may have dreams that remain in your head
Only to wither away over time.
Useless are hopes overlooked and unsaid, and
Rare is the victor unwilling to climb.
Hear not the people who doubt every rung,
Echoing doubts they themselves have received.
Attend to the words of the more fruitful tongue,
Ready and willing, no thoughts preconceived,
To trust and to see what great deeds are achieved.
Open your notions of what you can do;
Utter a cheer for still others like you, and
Try, for indeed that is how dreams come true.
MPAA rating: PG
I’ve often enjoyed watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a contest that mainly serves as an outlet for everyone to marvel at how kids can do what so many adults can’t. While it’s heartbreaking to watch the loser’s hopes dashed with the ding of a bell after words like ptyalagogue and apparatchik, the winning moment is a well-deserved shot of feel-good triumph, for the winner and those watching. Such is the appeal of Akeelah and the Bee, a story of hard work rewarded.
Keke Palmer is excellent as Akeelah Anderson, a young black girl who tries to merely blend in at her inner-city school. What makes her different, though, is her uncommon interest in spelling, which is little more than a hobby, but when she is urged to take part in the school’s spelling bee, it becomes more than that. Suddenly, her principal (Curtis Armstrong) has high hopes for her and encourages her to train with Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who himself participated in the National Spelling Bee as a child. Though her own confidence is fragile, she commits to the effort of studying and preparing for the National Bee.
Akeelah and the Bee could easily have been a ho-hum inspirational tale, but its nuance and heart win the day. Akeelah is almost trapped by a system that expects the least of her, while others see her potential. Fishburne is especially admirable as her spelling coach, acting not unlike Sydney Poitier in To Sir, with Love, patient with his pupil’s progress but adamant that she not become complacent or “talk ghetto” when their focus is the English language. He enshrines a quote by Marianne Williamson as his cogent argument against self-doubt, and even as he feels himself getting more invested in Akeelah than he had planned, he provides an example for her and an implicit call for her to be a role model for others.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee itself is recreated perfectly, right down to the same moderator whose recognizably uninflected voice reads out those difficult terms that no one would really use in a sentence. The pressure on the contestants is also very real and not just for Akeelah. Her rival Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael Afable) is constantly pressured by his father to win, and some scenes made me question the merit of putting kids under so much strain for the sake of an unlikely win. Yet Akeelah also makes friends through her newfound ambition, and even wins the encouragement of her mother (Angela Bassett) and her entire community. One seemingly shady punk named Derrick briefly reveals a softer side that seems to have been quashed by his environment, and his backing of Akeelah’s goals is like a chance to lend the support he never gave his own.
Akeelah and the Bee occasionally drifts into predictable territory, but by the end, the plot and characters take the unexpected high road to a happy ending well-earned. It’s hard to find fault when a film’s message of self-confidence and accomplishment is so earnestly and realistically presented (for the most part), and Akeelah and the Bee is a perfect example of an inspirational story done right.
Best line: (Derrick) “Kick his butt, Akeelah! B-U-T-T, butt!”
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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