“You know that feeling, that no matter what you do or where you go, you just don’t fit in?” Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a resolute, self-protecting 11-year-old. As much as she feels alone, though, Akeelah is one of those movie kids with a gift and a purpose. As her movie’s title suggests, Akeelah’s gift is the “bee” — she can spell like nobody’s business.
Uplifting and charming, Akeelah and the Bee begins as her gift is discovered, first by a teacher (Dalia Phillips), and then by her principal, Bob Welch (Curtis Armstrong). When he determines that she might publicize his Crenshaw middle school by performing well at a local bee, she resists: “Why would anyone want to represent a school that can’t even put doors on the toilets?” she asks. Bob takes her point, but sees a bigger picture, and finds a way to get Akeelah to the bee, namely, by threat of detention.
Luckily, this bit of regular plot (white authority figure saves the underclass child) is cut short when Bob brings along his friend, Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne) to watch Akeelah compete. Erstwhile chair of the English Department at UCLA and currently in need of a project, Larabee is impressed by her prodigious and immediately visible talent, and so he agrees to be her coach. The first hitch — and there will be several in this formulaic film — is that Akeelah doesn’t quite trust this interloper, and is disinclined to give up what she understands as her individuality to accommodate him. Larabee, however, points out that her notion of independence is only conformity. “Leave that ghetto talk outside,” he instructs when she visits him in his garden. “Here you will speak properly or you won’t speak at all.” The man won’t tolerate “insolent little girls.”
So begins Akeelah’s education, as she apologizes for being “insolent” and hunkers down to train for the next bee. The film focuses on Akeelah’s time with adults — her growing respect for Larabee and his increasing trust of her; her evolving relationship with her practical-minded and hardworking Tanya (Angela Bassett). Because her mom prohibits her from competing, Akeelah spends the first part of the film lying to her.
But if that sounds standard-issue for the “kids’ competition” film, it is in her relationships with other kids that Akeelah becomes unusual even within her formula film. On its surface, the film’s rendition of her many friendships and affiliations seems straight-up corny. She goes through some back-and-forth with her best friend at school, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), who thrills to Akeelah’s success initially, then feels left out of the bee crowd. This consists of montage spellers at the microphone and a couple of consistent competitors, her new friend Javier (J.R. Villarreal), and a rival, Dylan (Sean Michael). They make her feel like less of a misfit, because they share her interests, her drive, and, at least to an extent, her gift. These kids serve mainly as devices to illuminate Akeelah by their differences from her: Javier is sweet, well-adjusted, and develops something of a crush on Akeelah (he kisses her on the cheek, and explains, “I had an impulse!”), Dylan is bullied by his over-invested father (Tzi Ma), and so inspires her generosity even when he tries to intimidate her (a trick he’s apparently learned from dad).
Akeelah’s got a different sort of relationship with her dad, who was shot dead in the neighborhood when she was six. Apparently, before then, he inculcated in her a desire to spell, and so she gazes on his photo each night and pledges to please him with her newfound opportunities. Too often in kids’ competitions movies, the activity helps bring families together, ands this one does that and something else, as Akeelah seeks support from her neighbors as well (and who can resist this child?).
This is initiated when she has a bit of tension with her older brother Terrence (Julito McCullum), who thinks he wants to hang out on corners with the other tough kids. The head gangsta in charge, Derrick-T (formerly OfficeMax’s Rubberband Man Eddie Steeples) rolls up as she’s trying to get Terrence to help her spell, and he’s saying no, until Derrick-T instructs him otherwise. A couple of scenes later, when a montage shows Akeelah gathering together resources from around the neighborhood to help her train for the upcoming Big Bee (including the Chinese grocer and the mailman), she’s got the bangers schooling her with flashcards. It’s one giddy little moment out of many, a sign both of this movie’s silliness and its delights.
In large part, these delights have to do with Palmer’s winning performance, most apparent in one-on-one scenes with Tanya or Larabee. But the movie has something else going on as well. Embracing the conventions that make so many other genre films feel stale, Akeelah torques them slightly too. Akeelah finds her spelling in a particular sort of physical rhythm, tapping out letters on her thigh with her fingers or hearing the letters in her head as she jumps rope. She not only embodies her gift and her passion, but she also inspires new ways of thinking about intellectual activities. When Larabee tells her that he needs “a lot of order” in his life, Akeelah demonstrates original ways that order might be felt.