Akeelah and the Bee

Film
BUST A MOVE Fishburne schools Palmer.
BUST A MOVE Fishburne schools Palmer.

Time Out says

There’s an irony in Starbucks, purveyor of overpriced coffees, choosing Akeelah and the Bee for its first foray into film distribution: This familiar but effective prodigy story deals with characters who wouldn’t be caught dead walking into the bourgeois caffeine haven. Even so, Akeelah deserves credit for bringing a new angle to the current spelling-bee craze, which has thus far treated these high-pressure competitions as adorable novelties (Spellbound, Broadway’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and a pretext for New Age sludge (Bee Season). Akeelah, by contrast, poignantly depicts knowledge as an escape from self-reinforcing poverty: With the help of a magisterial English professor (Fishburne), the 11-year-old heroine (Palmer) persists in her studies, shrugging off her discouraging single mother (Bassett) and the stigma of learning “white man’s words.”

If it doesn’t have one already, the Starbucks soundtrack should add a theme song: “It’s Hard Out Here for a Logophile.” Although better than it looks, Akeelah is not without its platitudinous qualities. Part of the excitement of spelling bees is that anyone can strike out, and it’s hardly plausible that the finale would cater so perfectly to a screenwriter’s sense of drama. Nor does this stereotype-debunking film steer clear of caricatures, notably in the form of one competitor’s tyrannical Asian father. If only it were more subtle—like Starbucks’ French roast?—Akeelah would be a relatively guilt-free crowd-pleaser. (Opens Fri.)—Ben Kenigsberg

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