His name was Bernie, Bernie from Illinois. I sensed a challenge from the moment he walked into homeroom on the first day of middle school. Anyone who came from a state with a silent letter was going to be t-r-o-u-b-l-e. I had always been pretty good at spelling, but something about Bernie made me wonder if my reign as Bee Queen was nearing its end. When the day of the school spelling bee arrived, tensions were high. Could I prevail against the Illinois interloper? After a few exciting rounds of spelling and one too few s's in "possess", I had my answer. There was a new word sheriff in town, and I never misspelled "possess" again.
That's my big spelling bee memory. If you have one of your own, there will be a little part of you that will love Akeelah and the Bee. A tiny, tiny part of you that the rest of you will want to smack some sense into. And it would be well-deserved, because this is not a great movie.
Akeelah and the Bee is the tale of an 11-year-old underdog's trip to the National Spelling Bee. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is coached by Dr. Larabee( Laurence Fishburne), a sort of Mr. Miyagi of words. A really pompous Mr. Miyagi. Sure he can spell big words, but using them in regular conversation is and will always be annoying. Akeelah's mom (Angela Bassett) is equally irritating. She's an overworked mother who takes out her frustrations on Akeelah. She learns the error of her ways and becomes loving and supportive by the end of the movie, which is what you would expect from cookie-cutter characters like these. I can't really criticize the actors because their characters are unappealing; the characters were just not very well-written. Writer/director Doug Atchison will win no awards for subtlety any time soon. Where you might expect a writer to use a certain look or a line to advance the plot of their movie, Atchison uses both twice and throws in pictures besides. And in a feel-good movie like Akeelah and the Bee, lack of subtlety makes sweet quickly turn to sappy.
The bright spot in the cast was by far J.R. Villarreal. His portrayal of Javier, Akeelah's friend and fellow competitor, was good for a laugh in every scene. He was non-judgmental, confident, and didn't take himself too seriously. Everything a real 11-year-old isn't.
For what Atchison lacked in the subtlety department, he actually did manage to pull off a couple genuinely wonderful moments. The first time Akeelah stepped up to the microphone to spell her first word was a scary moment with which the kid in all of us can empathize. And the spelling of Akeelah's final word by all of her "mentors" was a touching way of bringing the movie full circle; Akeelah lamented her isolation at the beginning of the movie, and by the end, she was far from alone, there were indeed teachers everywhere.
Logic will tell you to hate this movie. But if you have any Bernies in your past, or if you harbor any tiny scars with names like "posess" or "liquidater" or "choclate", you will love it just a little. And hate yourself for it.