Combustible Celluloid
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With: Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal, Sean Michael Afable, Sahara Garey, Lee Thompson Young, Julito McCullum, Erica Hubbard, Eddie Steeples, Dalia Phillips, Tzi Ma, Jeris Lee Poindexter, Sara Niemietz
Written by: Doug Atchison
Directed by: Doug Atchison
MPAA Rating: PG for some language
Running Time: 112
Date: 03/16/2006

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

To Bee or Not to Bee

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After Spellbound and Bee Season, how many more spelling bee movies do we need? Well, if they're as good as Akeelah and the Bee, keep 'em coming.

Maybe it will turn into its own sub-sports genre like the boxing film or the baseball film. Even though the spelling bee involves study and intelligence and academia, it's really all about competition, and kicking someone else's hindquarters in the ring.

Little Keke Palmer gives a wonderful, weighty performance as 11 year-old Akeelah, living in a crummy neighborhood and attending a crummy school in South Los Angeles. Her single mom (Angela Bassett) is too busy to keep tabs on her and, while some of her siblings have chosen morally decent paths, her brother is on the verge of becoming a street thug.

Nonetheless, thanks to her late father (shot to death while coming home from work), Akeelah has a passion and a talent for spelling. When her dreary little school gets wind of this, they enter the reluctant girl in the bee, and pair her up with a coach, the stern Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).

This being a PG-rated family film, it's not too hard to guess the outcome. Second-time helmer Doug Atchison (whose first film is called, oddly, The Pornographers) milks the scenario for all the honey drips he can, including a needless, weepy subplot for Larabee's character. But somehow his skilled touch massages right through the knotty bits and leaves even the most hardened moviegoer in a state of blissful surrender.

Atchison coaxes rich, rounded performances from his cast, both adult and youngster; usually in these types of movies, adults are reduced to dolts and fools. But Fishburne gives us a tweedier version of his Matrix Morpheus, an even-toned mentor who eventually learns from his student. And though the busy, working mom can turn into a one-note character, Bassett gives this one a beautiful gravity. (Fortunately, when these two meet on screen, it's much more civil than their last pairing in What's Love Got to Do With it.)

Despite its family-friendly PG-rating, Atchison manages to suggest a seedy, vicious city atmosphere without resorting to overt violence or language, although it's hard to believe that Dr. Larabee's house, with its beautiful backyard garden, is actually located in a bad neighborhood.

These few silly quibbles aside, this is mainstream, family filmmaking at its finest. Even the movie's sinister Starbucks corporate sponsorship amounts to little; despite the long hours of study involved, not one character is seen drinking c-o-f-f-e-e.

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