Eleven year-old African-American Akeelah (Palmer) thinks spelling is uncool until she starts to win spelling bee competitions. A grieving professor, Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), helps train her for the national finals, but conflicts with her overworked mother threaten to interfere
The first product on the Starbucks Entertainment production line, this confection is as sugary, formulaic and all-American as you’d expect. And while US critics have gobbled it up with gusto, British audiences may find it harder to swallow — at least at first.
Young Akeelah’s character is drawn with broad strokes, her needs spelt out as painstakingly as the words that get her off the streets and into schooling. Many scenes, such as her sessions with the bereaved Dr. Larabee (a sleepwalking Fishburne), appear functional rather than inspirational: the film only inspires when Akeelah takes to the stage for the spelling bees.
There, the suspense is palpable despite the certainty of the outcome, and the kind of affectionate, geeky-kid humour that characterised the superior Spellbound edges into the picture. There’s sweetness in Akeelah’s friendship with fellow speller Javier, and credibility in the character of Chinese-American Dylan, whose strict father coaches him privately. Considering the multi-racial nature of the contests, though, the film plays the race card a little too heavily. “You goin’ up against a bunch of rich white kids — they gonna tear yo’ black ass up,” states Akeelah’s brother. Somewhat inaccurate on both counts.
Theres charm in this simple underdog tale, but clunky plotting and characterisation mean it has telemovie written all over it. Youd be better off renting Spellbound instead.