November 16, 2010 -- This is one of those inspirational stories like “Rocky” or “Rudy,” or “The Great Debaters,” where an underdog competitor works hard to achieve a dream. This is the best one of these kinds of longshot stories about children put to film I've seen in quite a while. It isn't just about the competition. It is about heart, dedication, intelligence and the pulling together of a entire community. Like “Spellbound” the competition in this film isn't athletic, it is academic, namely the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, where youngsters must spell extremely difficult words or be knocked out of the competition.
Every story needs a hero and this one has a beauty, 12-year-old Keke Palmer (who now has her own TV series called “True Jackson, VP”). Palmer plays the title character, the shy, but brilliant Akeelah Anderson. Growing up in a tough neighborhood and attending an underfunded school (they have classes in stairwells) she is an unlikely candidate for high academic achievement, but she never misspells a word on any of her spelling tests. Her teacher and principal finally persuade the shy girl to participate in a national spelling bee. She resists because she doesn't want to be treated as a nerdy outcast at school.
Akeelah gets a lucky break with the help of a friend and advances to the state level competition, but she finally realizes she needs help to get farther. She enlists the aid of Dr. Joshua Larabee (played by Laurence Fishburne of the “Matrix” movies). Larabee is a friend of the school principal and lives nearby. He's currently on sabbatical following a family tragedy that is revealed later in the film. He is also a former spelling bee champ. Akeelah had rejected Larabee's help earlier in the story because he is a very demanding spelling bee coach.
Eventually Akeelah and Larabee form a bond. Larabee becomes like a father figure to the young girl, whose own father was killed in a shooting incident. Akeelah's father loved words and learning and he passed that love on to her. Learning words is a way for Akeelah to escape from her pain. One day Larabee abruptly says he has taught Akeelah all he can. He gives her 5,000 flash cards of difficult words and tells Akeelah to learn them on her own. Akeelah's family and friends, her whole South Los Angeles community, helps coach her as she advances in the national competition. If she is to win the national finals, however, she needs Larabee's help, but finds him inexplicably distant and withdrawn. Eventually, she figures out why.
The story is beautifully told and the acting is wonderful by a very talented cast, including Angela Bassett as Akeelah's mother. Bassett and Fishburne have appeared together before, most famously as the mercurial musical duo Ike and Tina Turner in the award-winning “What's Love Got to Do with It” (both were nominated for Academy Awards and Bassett should have won). The story wouldn't work this well without having the right actress play the part of Akeelah, and Keke Palmer is perfect in the role. For writer-director Doug Atchison, this was clearly a labor of love. He could have sold the script and had someone else direct the film, but spent years instead raising the money to direct the film himself (this is revealed in the extras on the DVD). Fishburne is also listed as a producer of this film. Everyone involved believed in this film and it shows. This film rates an A.
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