Saturday, April 22, 2006

BEE SEASON: If there's two things you know I like a bit too much, it's good formula films and spelling bees. So you're damned right I was at a sneak preview for Akeelah and the Bee tonight, and whether you want to call it Drumline without the drums or Lean On Me but with only one kid taking the test, well, that's fine.

Because if you're the kind of person who was considering seeing this movie, then, yes, you should see it. It's a warm, smart, inspirational film about a girl from Crenshaw who wants to make it to the National Spelling Bee, and it works. When I say that people were cheering in the audience, I'm not shitting you.

Look: the formulaic elements are in abundance -- characters using each other to replace missing family members, concerns about Keeping It Real, and, perhaps regrettably, The Evil Asian Speller With The High-Pressure Dad as the stock nemesis. But as a whole, the movie works: accept it on its own terms, and let it manipulate you well.

The cast is superb, from Keke Palmer as the serenely poised Akeelah Anderson all the way down to Dr. Jacques Bailly as himself, chief pronouncer at Nationals. It is disconcerting to see a grown-up Curtis Armstrong playing the well-meaning principal and not winning belching competitions, but it's even weirder to see a movie starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett where he's not beating the crap out of her. (Yes, there's one or two times in the movie where you're just waiting for him to call her Annie Mae.)

I want to say a few words about accuracy in the movie. First off, those of you who follow the Bee will recognize that they're re-using a lot of recent competition words throughout the movie. Nice verisimilitude. It's capped with the re-use of a word from the 2004 Bee which made Jen and I laugh out loud because of its association with a prior work of Mr. Fishburne's, and if you insist on having the in-joke spoiled, click on this link.

There were three problems in terms of strictly obeyeing actual Bee rules, though, but since they're spoilerish I'll make you highlight below if you want to know: first off, there's no rule at Nationals which states that when you're down to two spellers and one gets a word wrong, the other does not have to spell that word correctly to proceed, but, rather, the rule is just that you have to spell the next two other words correctly. (But this is invoked with a really nice twist, so I didn't mind in the end.)And obviously, the kids don't get to confer with their coaches again in the middle of the competition. Lastly, the final word used was not exactly a Championship Words caliber word, but I understand why it was used to pull the plot back to square one.

All in all, though, it's done with good heart and good intentions, and it's a good piece of entertainment in a season sorely lacking in joy. Grade: Bee-Plus.

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