Akeelah and the Bee
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir-scr Doug Atchison
with Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, JR Villarreal, Sean Michael, Sahara Garey, Lee Thompson Young, Julito McCullum, Erica Hubbard, Eddie Steeples, Dalia Phillips
release US 28.Apr.06,
UK 18.Aug.06
06/US Lionsgate 1h52

How do you spell "treacle"? Fishburne and Palmer

fishburne bassett armstrong

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Akeelah and the Bee Despite a strong story about inner strength and motivations, this film is undermined by an over-scripted plot and gooey sentiment.

Akeelah (Palmer) is 11 years old and obsessed with spelling. Her grades are a little wobbly, mostly due to the harsh environment in her innercity Los Angeles school. But the principal (Armstrong) notices her skills, and enlists a coach (Fishburne) to help her prepare for a big spelling bee. Alas, Akeelah's mother (Bassett) is too busy with work to help or even encourage her. But as she starts winning her way up through the competition, the whole community rallies around.

There's a very nice story in here, and a terrific cast that's dedicated to delivering honest performances. But the screenplay is so blatantly constructed that it begins to grate. Each character has all sorts of convenient issues and situations that seem added simply to propel the plot and provide some sort of semblance of important meaning. But it's so corny and cliched that it's ultimately meaningless. Which is a shame, as the film does touch seriously on issues of motivation and inner strength.

Palmer delivers a terrific performance that gives the film a thoroughly engaging heart--she keeps us watching. Her wit and intelligence add spark to the trite dialog, and build strong chemistry with the nicely against-type Fishburne and Bassett, who's excellent as always, although slightly wasted in a one-dimensional role as the caring but harried single mother. Undemanding moviegoers may fall for the film's fake depth, but for most audiences the formulaic movie touches cancel out any good will the actors generate.

Virtually every scene is overloaded with silly, simplistic touches--from the fact that every character has his or her private little demon a pushy subplot about a sullen teen (Michael) and his bullying father. Even the city versus suburbs theme is essentially superficial. Although this and many other themes are ripe for discussion, they all seem to be used here as mere plot pegs. But as a movie, it's slickly made and shamelessly entertaining, with a predictably happy ending that's sugary beyond words.

cert PG themes, some language 23.May.06

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2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall