Akeelah And The Bee Doug Atchison

Spelling bees are a particularly American phenomenon, an apparently equal opportunity contest rewarding Ben Franklin-style self-improvement and dangling the vain hope that anyone can make something of themselves if they get up early enough. In reality, they are sideshows to the real business of the American Dream, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is an 11-year-old girl from South L.A. who reluctantly enters and ultimately, wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington. All the details beyond this can be filled in with clichés: her (noble, word-loving) father was killed when she was six and now her mother (Angela Bassett) is struggling to keep the family together; she is coached by a curmudgeonly academic (Laurence Fishburne), who is grieving the loss of his own daughter and who will eventually tell her the inevitable "There’s nothing left for me to teach you”; her friends from home at first resent but ultimately support her success; and in the end, it’s all about love. There is even the requisite Rocky-esque "training” montage, which is always so much funnier when the training is mental rather than physical. The film does veer into social commentary (Akeelah questions why she should "represent a school where they don’t even put doors on the toilet stalls”) but only in a very gentle way. This is a story about black people written, directed and produced by a white team, and it really doesn’t address the deeper inequities underlying Akeelah’s bootstrap story. Akeelah’s best friend’s aspirations are tellingly low: "Girl, if I could spell like you, I know I could be a flight attendant,” or as my Irish grandfather said in another era, "with brains like that he could’ve been a bus conductor.” Lovely performances by Fishburne, Bassett and newcomer Keke Palmer don’t save this toothless ode to the American Dream, which is in the end, a cliché sold on the strength of personality. Plus: "making of” and other featurettes, gag reel, deleted scenes, Keke Palmer’s music video "All my Girlz.” (Maple)