For all those who've been waiting for a fictional version of Spellbound, The Karate Kid for Spelling, or perhaps "Good Word Hunting," your wait is over. The first film brought to you by Starbucks Entertainment (a dubious distinction), writer-director Doug Atchison's Akeelah and the Bee tells the story of 11-year-old spelling-bee whiz Akeelah Anderson.
As winningly played by Keke Palmer, Akeelah has a gift for words but would rather suppress it than be singled out by her peers. When her underfunded middle school gets wind of her talent, the principal (miscast Curtis Armstrong) bullies her into a spelling bee. Her virtuosity established, Akeelah grudgingly begins to realize her greater potential under the tutelage of a former UCLA professor—and former spelling-bee finalist—played by Laurence Fishburne. "He lives in this neighborhood?" asks Akeelah. "I thought you said he was important." Awwww.
By being dramatically jerry-rigged in every possible way, Akeelah and the Bee pushed all of my buttons. Akeelah's dead dad, to whom she regularly talks, was a word lover, and Fishburne's emotionally armored Dr. Larrabee has a dead relative driving him, too. Then there's the gangbangin' brother, varyingly distracted and suspicious mother (Angela Bassett, used wastefully), and not once but twice-recited inspiration from Mandela's 1994 inaugural address ("Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure...").
Atchison neither trusts his audience to get each moral nor stops at the narrative clichés—he also employs visual clichés, like outfitting Larrabee in professorial sweaters (what, no pipe?) and having him garden as he teaches Akeelah (thank you, Mr. Miyagi). The ultimate message, that it takes a village to coach a spelling bee champ, is a benign half-truth for adults, but Akeelah and the Bee is better aimed at kids, who may briefly think that words are cool.