And his enthusiasm has clearly filtered down to the rest of the crew. Lit by journeyman Cinematographer M. David Mullen, the film has a polish not normally associated with small independent projects. This goes double for the strong score and triple for the excellent editing and unobtrusive production design. You get a sense that this is a labour of love for everyone involved – which is the whole reason independent film exists in the first place.
In the end though, it’s the cast that really makes Akeelah and the Bee worth watching. The adults are credible enough, with Laurence Fishburne putting in a finely judged performance as a reclusive professor, but the kids are the ones who steal this show.
Young Keke Palmer is every bit as talented as the girl she portrays, with expressive eyes and an easy charm that makes her very hard to dislike. J.R. Villarreal is equally delightful as Akeelah’s vivacious friend Javier, and Sean Michael plays the tragic villain with aplomb.
In case you’re wondering, the phrase “spelling bee” originates from 19th century America, when communities used to gather to perform tasks like husking corn (a “husking bee”) or compete with each other at skills like sewing (a “quilting bee”) or spelling words. Wherever they came from, spelling bees are now a serious business in North America, with televised national competitions and cash prizes.
To its credit Akeelah and the Bee concentrates on the nobility of winning, and not on the cash. This is an underdog story at its most pure – as corny and wide eyed as they come and, like Freedom Writers, we’ve seen most of it before. But look past the obvious flaws and you’ll see something special: a film that really means what it says.
- Alistair Fairweather
This feel-good mix of Finding Forrester and Spellbound may not be the first movie about spelling bees, but it's easily the most inspiring.
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