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Akeelah and the Bee

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/27/06 22:45:05

"World, say hello to Keke Palmer."
3 stars (Just Average)

We have a major find in Keke Palmer, whose turn as the title character in “Akeelah and the Bee” is far from perfect, but it’s vibrant and engaging and quite wonderful. Palmer, who has appeared previously in such works as “The Wool Cap” and “Madea’s Family Reunion,” has turned in the kind of performance that causes you to sit up and take notice. We see the seeds of something special here; Palmer cements herself here as one to watch in the years to come.

In fact, all of the performances in “Akeelah” are top notch, which is good, because the movie itself is only so-so. There are great moments found within, but overall, it’s bloated with cliché, the screenplay seemingly afraid to take a single chance. We get an entire plotline about how Akeelah really wants to compete in the spelling bee, but her mom won’t let her because… well, there’s no good reason. This conflict simply exists so we can get the scene where the mother walks into the bee right when Akeelah’s up, melodrama ensuing.

The whole movie’s filled with moments like this, moments we’ve seen countless times before: the best friend gets upset because the hero is spending too much time with new pals/practicing for the Big Event; the archrival has a villainous father who demands nothing less than perfection; the hero’s brother is hanging out with the wrong crowd; the wrong crowd turns out to be decent people, once they realize a little girl’s dreams are on the line; the coach is mourning a lost loved one, as is the hero; the mother is tired and cranky and bitter but soon she will come to cheer for her daughter; the hero becomes a beacon of hope for a troubled school… I could go on, you know. After all, the movie does.

And yet through all of this, “Akeelah and the Bee” still manages to work. The film, written and directed by Doug Atchison (whose lone previous feature credit is the 1999 indie drama “The Pornographer” - talk about a sharp left turn), has a way with its characters that although we find them contained by familiar plot points, they still connect in all the right ways. Atchison and his cast have a way of building the characters, of allowing them to work their way through the contrived story without becoming contrivances themselves.

Akeelah is an eleven-year-old junior high student smarter than any of her peers. Like many girls of her intellect and age, she wants only to hide her gifts, fearing mockery from the “normal” kids. Hers is a genius of words - as a hobby, she keeps a list of words and memorizes their spellings. She is convinced by her principal (Curtis Armstrong) to enter the school’s spelling bee, which she most certainly wins. The principal’s friend (Laurence Fishbourne) is brought in to coach her on her way up the tournaments; what follows is standard student-teacher drama, punctuated by two very fine performances (Fishbourne is to wise mentoring as Morgan Freeman is to calm, cool narration) and a storyline that celebrates, of all things, intelligence.

This, ultimately, is what makes “Akeelah” special. Here is a movie that wants to tell smart kids everywhere that not only is there no shame in intelligence, but there is shame in wanting to hide it. We can take great joy in watching Akeelah find her place in a world that initially wants her to act ghetto just to fit in. It’s a bit unbelievable, but the plot even goes so far as to have her entire South Central L.A. neighborhood cheer her on and help her study - not only does her community not shun her for her talents, but they begin to take great pride in their brightest star. It’s such an uplifting notion that we can forgive such clumsiness as the convenience of having all three of the main child characters wind up at the finals together. (Heck, we’ll even overlook the iffy finale, which aims to please everyone yet winds up stretching our suspension of disbelief to its limits.)

The entire movie seems to be built around the Marianne Williamson quotation about how “our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” So important is the message of Williamson’s poem that the script quotes from it twice.

But ah, it’s time to come back to Palmer. It’s because of her that we become so engrossed in the story, that we pardon the clunkiness of the plot, that we wind up cheering. This is a young actress that does so much with so little - with just a look of the eyes, we can see everything Akeelah is feeling and thinking. Young actors are often not this adept at telling us so much without saying anything at all. Keep an eye on this one. She’s only a few movies away from something truly magical.

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