So apparently Akeelah and the Bee is the first movie that "Starbucks Entertainment" is pushing. The company's been looking for the right flick to get into the movie-marketing biz with, and they chose this one because it "is a story that reflects the values of creativity, community, hope, and perseverance which we at Starbucks hold dear" (says Starbucks.com).
As much as that makes me want to gag, I gotta admit: They're right, these people with their pricey coffee and their progressive values. Akeelah is pretty darn wonderful: uplifting without being sappy, inspiring without being unrealistic. I confess I got a bit sniffly at the end, even though I saw the ending coming from, well, from the moment when all those Akeelah and the Bee flashcards started getting plastered all over every damn Starbucks in America.
Yeah, that's the big thing keeping me from calling Akeelah a truly great film: It's predictable. Hollywood usage: The condition of evincing a manner of being that compels the observer to feel as if she has seen this movie 18 gazillion times before. P-R-E-D-I-C-T-A-B-L-E. Predictable.
This a cinematic road we've journeyed too many times before for there to be anything like revelation in Akeelah. It's so conventional as to be clichéd: the underdog student no one expects to succeed, the wounded teacher who will be rejuvenated by the joie de vivre of this young person taken under his wing. Writer/director Doug Atchison won the highly prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting contest in 2000 with this script, and it's shocking and saddening to imagine that this was one of the top five scripts out of the 4,500 entries that year. Where Akeelah succeeds, it is despite its script, not because of it.
Akeelah, in fact, succeeds because of Akeelah. Because the character is a rarity in movies: a smart, geeky girl (I used the word "geek" in only the most positive sense) who overcomes peer pressure — to conform and be "average" and hide how brainy she is — just at that precarious preteen point when it threatens to overwhelm most girls, and usually succeeds in doing so. If nothing else, Akeelah is a triumph for all little girls seeking an alternative role model, and for parents who wish to expose their daughters to a wonderful example of how "being cool" doesn't have to mean "being just like everyone else." Because as Akeelah, the clever and lovely Keke Palmer — who was 11 years old when the film was shot — is one of the most credible and compelling young actors I've ever seen, with a warmth and a genuine real-kidness that isn't often captured on film.
Which isn't to suggest that the rest of the cast isn't fantastic, either. Laurence Fishburne — as the grieving college prof who coaches Akeelah on her road from a horrendously ill-equipped South L.A. school all the way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. — overcomes the hackneyed speechifying he must direct at his co-star and manages not to let on that he surely knows all of us in the audience are hearing Morpheus-esque profundities every time he opens his mouth. (And it doesn't help at all that Akeelah's last name is Anderson.) Angela Bassett, as Akeelah's mother, suffers a too-dramatic change of heart — from the single mom too weighed down with job and family responsibilities to pay much attention to Akeelah's needs and desires into a wholehearted supporter — but Bassett is such a powerful presence that we'll pretend not to notice that. And young J.R. Villarreal as Akeelah's bee-pal Javier and Sean Michael Afable as her bee-nemesis Dylan are charming in their real-kidness, too.
So see Akeelah, and bring along a smart little girl you know who needs some confirmation that it's okay to be a brainiac. Just don't expect that you won't be rolling your eyes at its corniness ... as you're wiping away a few tears of joy, too.