Monday, October 29, 2007

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee has a handicap to overcome that is as challenging as anything its 11-year-old heroine has to face. It has to overcome a sense of déjà vu, that sense of “I’ve seen this oh so many times before.” The fact that it overcomes this so satisfyingly must go down as one of the major movie triumphs of 2006. I watched Akeelah with my family last night. Afterwards, I told my daughters, who were still bouncing around the room from the experience, that I was going to write a review. They told me, “It better be a good one dad.”

This was a rare occasion for me. I had no idea who directed this movie as I watched it. I’m usually really up on that sort of thing, but in this case I just wanted to see a good movie about a girl competing in a spelling bee. When the credits rolled, I saw the name Doug Atchison flash by and I was surprised. Not that it was Atchison – a name I’d never heard before and, after checking Internet Movie Database, one that still means nothing – but that it wasn’t John G. Avildsen the director of Rocky and The Karate Kid.

And there is the source of my déjà vu. If you’ve seen those movies, not to mention Bad News Bears and just about any other sports movie, you’ll feel your thoughts just a bit ahead of every twist and turn. We have a talented heroine who reluctantly starts down the road to glory with everything in her upbringing working against her. We have the stern mentor figure who insists she prove herself before he accepts the role of coach. (And of course, he also has his own skeletons that make his involvement in the relationship painful and yet also inevitable.) There are exciting training montages that felt only to be missing “wax on, wax off” to be complete although they did contain the physical challenge of holding up a rather large and heavy book and the meaningful and rhythmic use of a jump rope. We have early competitions with necessary lessons to be learned before taking on Goliath. And speaking of Goliath, he has a father as clearly and vicariously re-living his disappointing childhood through his own child as the dark pitcher (son)/coach (father) relationship in The Bad News Bears.

So, how does the movie manage to still feel fresh and alive? Well, first off and to be fair, I was caught a few times patting myself on the back for my cleverly figuring out what was going to happen next only to be surprised by an unexpected twist. This always brought a most welcome blush to my experienced movie geek sense of pride. I love it when a move that seems predictable proves me wrong. That really isn’t the reason I ended up loving Akeelah and the Bee though.

I loved it because I loved the characters. Sure a few never convincingly took flight like Akeelah’s mom played by Angela Bassett or the poor boy saddled with the thankless role of Akeelah’s sour and humorless arch rival or the poor man stuck playing the rival’s father with a steady, stern sneer, the source of his son’s sour humorlessness. But soaring far above these stock characters are the magnificent performance by the always reliable Laurence Fishburne as Akeelah’s spelling coach and the totally appealing work by the young J.R. Villarreal as Akeelah’s competitive soul mate, guide, and first crush in the dog-eat-dog world of competitive spelling. He delivers one of my favorite lines, “I almost had to start tap-dancing,” after stalling a panel of judges for what must’ve seemed an eternity on Akeelah’s behalf.

As for Akeelah played by the young and startlingly talented Keke Palmer, this is one of those star-in-the-making performances that I never wanted to see end. I could’ve watched her natural, instinctive talent win, lose, or draw spelling bees for six or eight more hours and, if she decided along the way to switch to baseball or swimming or playing the piano with her toes, I would’ve followed her there as well. She is that good. She is just that appealing. We’re going to see a lot more of this girl in the years to come and I’ll be keeping my eyes pealed.

Or, maybe, there is something more primal behind my attraction to this movie, as well as my love of every movie I earlier lumped together as examples of sports movie predictability. Perhaps, as Joseph Campbell demonstrated in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we have a collective need for heroes who take these journeys and succeed against the odds, heroes who reluctantly enter a new world, work with tough trainers who teach them important lessons, confront their dark side, and experience their own form of triumph. If it was good enough for Luke Skywalker, it’s certainly good enough for Rocky Balboa, The Karate Kid, and, now, Akeelah.


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