- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pointing out the flaws in “Akeelah and the Bee” is like chiding Santa Claus for his big belly.

Sure, ol’ St. Nick should shed a few pounds, but he’s earned a permanent pass thanks to his annual toy drops.

And so it goes for “Akeelah,” a movie with such a kind heart that it renders itself immune to any real criticism.

We’ll be gentle. Promise.

“Akeelah” is the latest film to use the National Spelling Bee championships as both metaphor for the American dream and vehicle for some surprisingly tense sequences.

Young Keke Palmer stars as the title character, an 11-year-old living with her widowed mother (Angela Bassett) and boilerplate siblings — a budding gangsta brother and a teen mama sister — in South Central Los Angeles.

Akeelah is smart as the proverbial whip but doesn’t flaunt it around the schoolyard for fear of being ostracized.

Principal Welch (Curtis Armstrong, yes, he was Booger in “Revenge of the Nerds”) coaxes Akeelah into entering the school’s first spelling bee. She resists, but Welch sees the young girl as a PR bonanza for the struggling school.

She aces the test, drawing the attention of a burned out professor named Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).

The good doctor, a former spelling bee champ himself, agrees to train Akeelah with the ultimate goal of her winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the District.

Akeelah’s mother isn’t onboard with the plan initially. She doesn’t want her daughter traveling on her own to attend local study sessions, and her job doesn’t give her enough time to support Akeelah properly.

It’s up to Dr. Larabee, and a charming fellow student named Javier (J.R. Villarreal), to rally to Akeelah’s side.

That means staring down Dylan (Sean Michael), the local whiz kid, and his demanding father, the film’s hissable villain and an undeniable Asian stereotype.

If “Akeelah” were a major league hurler, every hitter in the league would know its next pitch. Writer-director Doug Atchison tips his hand at every step, but he can’t spoil the rich bond between Akeelah and Dr. Larabee.

Mr. Fishburne, freed from action drivel like “Biker Boyz” and “Assault on Precinct 13,” resonates with a cool performance that breaks the generic “authority figure” mold. Too bad his character is stuck with a maudlin history meant to play off Akeelah’s own loss. The revelation sequence should be a snore, but Mr. Fishburne brings the scene to life with an aching sense of pain and acceptance.

Young Keke’s acting may be a bit rough around the edges, but she’s utterly charming and holds the screen with Mr. Fishburne like a pro.

“Akeelah” raises a host of juicy subplots but doesn’t give them enough attention, from Akeelah’s budding celebrity to how some in the black community prize thuggery over book smarts.

Never mind our nit-picking. Relish a rare family drama that embraces family, community and the power of the “Bee.”

***

WHAT: “Akeelah and the Bee”

RATING: PG (Mild profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Doug Atchison. Original music by Aaron Zigman.

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

WEB SITE: www.akeelahandthebee.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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