Letter Perfect

Akeelah spells out a fantasy that feels wonderfully real

Apr 26, 2006 at 4:00 am
Every year, when ESPN broadcasts the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a tiny flutter of hope rises in anyone who cherishes the life of the mind. Spelling is a sport? Sweet Jesus! For the duration of the competition, the brainy kid who gets his glasses stomped by knuckle-draggers on the playground is something more than a wedgie magnet. He's part of a brotherhood of athletes, a Michael Jordan who dunks with digraphs.

It doesn't last — not at a time when mass-culture contempt for book learnin' and the eggheads who persist in it has never been higher, when the tangible value of an education is set mostly by Jeopardy! But for the length of the spelling bee, the fantasy exists of a meritocracy for any kid who's willing to learn.

It exists too in Akeelah and the Bee, a sweet-natured, immensely likable family film that recasts the bee's human drama — captured memorably in the 2002 documentary Spellbound — in the familiar terms of an after-school special. "Fantasy" may be the right word for a movie in which study alone overcomes all the savage inequalities of poverty, in which all bad people have some inner gold, in which circumstance ultimately favors the good at heart. Watching it, a parent feels a little like Terrence Howard's pimp in Hustle & Flow, who says that when his daughter asks him one day if she can be president, he's going to look her right in the eye and lie.

But these are fantasies worth believing in, and because of a remarkable young actress named Keke Palmer, we believe in the movie. Palmer plays Akeelah Anderson, a bright eleven-year-old languishing in an underfunded, underequipped South Central Los Angeles public school. To call attention to the needy kids and dire resources, the principal (Curtis Armstrong) hits upon the unlikely PR strategy of drafting a student to compete in the city's spelling bee, with an eye toward advancing to the regionals.

Writer-director Doug Atchison effectively sketches all the obstacles standing in Akeelah's way: a home where her widowed mom (Angela Bassett) fights to make ends meet, an at-risk neighborhood where her older brother (Julito McCullum) hangs with a shady local thug. Worst is the stigma of being smart. Almost against her will — she's bullied and branded a "brainiac" by dim-bulb classmates — Akeelah nonetheless performs well enough to catch the eye of a visiting UCLA prof, Joshua Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne, who also produced), who volunteers to serve as a sort of orthographic Mr. Miyagi.

Making book study cinematically exciting is no easy feat, and Atchison doesn't exactly finesse the problem — not unless your idea of kinetic excitement is a montage of reading Latin dictionaries cut to "Rubber Band Man." (Like Larrabee, the movie largely pretends rap doesn't exist; in this maiden voyage of Starbucks Entertainment, the contemporary sound of ghetto aspiration and suburban envy is scarce as a two-dollar latte.) But the movie doesn't need the hype. Its urgency comes from Palmer, who makes the prospect of learning seem transformative.

Last seen as Tyler Perry's wayward charge in Madea's Family Reunion, Palmer doesn't have the fresh-scrubbed emotion-on-demand affectation that many child actors give off. Akeelah just looks tired and wary, and Palmer doesn't exaggerate her unhappiness — sitting at a PC Scrabble board, she's any kid lost in play, even under her late father's gaze. Nor does she overplay Akeelah's growing self-confidence. As she makes it to round after round, her face brightens only gradually, as if one hard-closed inner window after another were finally starting to let in some light. But she's able to convey something almost ineffable: the difference that knowledge makes in a person's sense of worth.

It's Palmer who makes the buildup to the national showdown compelling — not the trumped-up rivalry with an arrogant Chinese prodigy (Sean Michael), not the big secret that Larrabee's hiding in the wings. These elements all demonstrate the difference between conventions — the obligatory elements that you want to see in a piece of storytelling, because they provide satisfaction — and the clichés. Instead, it's the movie's corny, stubborn good-heartedness that provides its most warming moments: the friendship between Akeelah and a supportive upper-class contestant (J.R. Villareal), the odd little connection between the girl and a local gangsta who was once a little kid with a trophy.

Knowledge, like dance, is one of those things that has value in contemporary movies only when it's used in competition. In the nifty finale, Atchison pulls a neat reversal that shifts tension to what's really at stake: decency, honor and a sense of accomplishment, not claiming a place on a plaque. If you can keep from biting your nails when Akeelah gets "argillaceous," or from tearing up at the resolution, you're made of sterner stuff than I. Someday my little girl will pop in this DVD, watch it with wide eyes, and ask if that's the way life really is. And I'm going to look her right in the eye, and lie.