Akeelah And The Bee Doug Atchison

Backed by a Starbucks’ marketing muscle, Akeelah and the Bee is the cinematic equivalent of said ubiquitous coffee chain: completely formulaic but with a tasty layer of social consciousness to make the viewer feel slightly less guilty about how homogenous the entire exercise feels.

Following 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson’s journey from an underprivileged, truant but gifted middle-school student to proud African-American national spelling champion, the film doesn’t overlook any cliché during her rise to the top. From Akeelah’s frequent conversations with her dead father’s photo to her tough-love relationship with her surrogate father, coach Dr.Larabee (Laurence Fishburne in a series of dapper pastel sweater vests), the movie oozes with the inspirational message of an underdog overcoming the odds.

Larger social issues — a decaying public school system, the lure of gang banger culture, the disparity of wealth between Akeelah and her suburban peers — are simultaneously heavy-handedly addressed and completely glossed over. Keke Palmer has great stage presence as Akeelah and the supporting cast (including Angela Bassett as her incredibly buff, overworked single mother) is solid, but you can’t help but wish that director Dough cut out some of the plot contrivances (and montages) and thrown a few more curveballs.

Still, it’s gratifying to see the village that raises a child as a counterpart to the cesspool of Bassett and Fishburne’s far superior South Los Angeles movie, Boyz ’ n the Hood, and considering the intended audience (schools are being encouraged to book group screenings), the film’s lack of grit is somewhat understandable. (Maple)