Review: Akeelah and the Bee

Director: Doug Atchison
Viewed: June 27, 2008
Format: DVD - Lionsgate (2006)

A - I see a lot of children’s movies. I’m always looking for something inspiring to show my students. They’re older, almost middle schoolers, so enriching entertainment is hard to come by. Recently, a student brought in Akeelah and the Bee. I personally wanted to see the movie because of all the positive things I’d heard about it, but I’d never really pegged it as a movie children would enjoy. My students were captivated, and so was I. This is a moving, entertaining, and challenging film, as suitable for an eleven-year-old as it is for a fifty-year-old.

Akeelah, a bright student in a poor area of Los Angeles, finds herself forced to take part in her school spelling bee to make up for her rampant truancy, and ends up going all the way to nationals. The story itself is very interesting. Her teacher is shocked to see her getting perfect scores on spelling tests despite her continual absence from school. The discovery of Akeelah’s gift for spelling draws the interest of the principal who is desperate to win some funding for the poor school. Akeelah wins her school spelling bee and draws further interest from the principal’s old college friend, Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who eventually becomes her coach in the pursuit of the national spelling bee trophy.

The story has some heart. Akeelah’s father is dead, her mother is loving but strict (played beautifully by Angela Basset), and Akeelah’s older brother is in trouble with the law. There are other details about Dr. Larabee that are uncovered, we find out why Akeelah is such a great speller, and so forth.

A few moments were too wonderful, including Akeelah learning to spell while jumping rope after Larabee discovers that rythm is her mnemonic device. Later, Akeelah pretends to jump rope at the spelling bee to get past a difficult word. The ending is simply inspiring: the whole community finds out about their local spelling genius, and everyone takes a hand in coaching Akeelah, from her mother to the mailman, to her brother’s less-than-savory friends. Everyone comes together, and the ending is unexpected, but satisfying.

As far as a movie for children, I won’t lie: there were some choice words used by the older brother; “ass” is featured more than once, and the mom lets loose with a couple “damns.” I would normally stop a movie after hearing that with my students, but this movie was simply too good otherwise. They still talk about how great the movie was, and they cheered at the end. The older brother’s language was accepted by the children, because he was not a positive influence, and none of them could say they’d never heard their mom swear! So the language was appropriate for the characters, and not gratuitous.

Older children, grade 4 and up will love Akeelah and the Bee, but anyone younger may not understand the concepts and deep familial struggles touched on in the film.

This is truly a kid’s movie that DOES NOT SUCK! Highly highly recommended, for children ages 10-90.

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