Akeelah and the Bee (Doug Atchison/2005)
AKEELAH AND THE BEE follows in a refreshing way the vogue for films that explore the often tense, but rewarding world of the spelling bee. The 2002 documentary Spellbound - along with this year’s Bee Season - set the stage, but Doug Atchison’s new film - receiving its UK premiere at the Festival - rounds out the competition by adding a rose-tinted glow to the trend. Bright 11-year-old Akeelah (Keke Palmer) lives with her single mother (Angela Bassett) in South L.A. and is caught up between hanging out with friends and achieving good grades at school. Gifted with a vast vocabulary, she is persuaded by her principal to enter a local spelling bee under the tutelage of philosophical former spelling champ Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). After she wins, Akeelah feels the pressure to go national with her linguistic talent, but the path to success is littered with obstacles.
Revelatory life lessons abound for the characters, and the film has a nicely relaxed feel, helped by the sharply lyrical script. At times events feel drawn from well-used formula and veer close to being uplifting-by-numbers - with many montages of Akeelah selflessly guided by her extended community - but the film is unfettered by its own sentimental charm. The tone is blissfully good-natured, aided by the diffuse, golden-hued cinematography and Palmer’s vibrantly confident performance. The film winds its way into the affections all the same; so confident is the film you can’t help being carried along on Akeelah’s journey. And for what it does - in a simple, heartfelt way - it's almost word perfect.