Akeelah (Keke Palmer) has just won her school’s spelling bee and everyone is impressed and proud. But Dr. Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne), who, like Keke, grew up in Compton, pushes her further, with this long word that means magic.
And she knows it.
The movie has its own form of prestidigitation, not only in the transformation of its characters as they learn from each other and the experiences they share but on the audience as well. This is one of the best family films in a very long time and one of the best films of the year.
Oh, there are some meanies out there who may groan when the girl from Compton who loves words gets coached by everyone from the gruff but cuddly local drug dealer to the kind-hearted homeless guy. It takes a village, even in the Hood, the movie seems to say. And it all fits together just a little too neatly, so we’re not surprised when a girl with a missing daddy is befriended by a man who is dealing with his own loss as well. And yes, it follows the traditional underdog formula: a show of talent, a lack of confidence, an inspiring but demanding mentor, commitment at first uncertain, then whole-hearted, setbacks, unexpected friendships, an opponent who lacks our heroine’s heart and integrity, and then everything coming together at the big competition.
These themes are eternal, and eternally compelling and appealing, as long as the details are right and the characters are people we care about. And this is where “Akeelah” really delivers, with superb performances and a script filled with heart and humor. KeKe Palmer glows as Akeelah and Angela Bassett is marvelous as the mother who is loving but exhausted and terrified of risking any more loss. Laurence Fishburne is magnificent as Akeelah’s coach, Dr. Larabee, a man who has more in common with Akeelah than he wants to admit. The result is one of the best family films of the year and that spells: E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T.
Parents should know that the movie includes some tense family confrontations, references to sad deaths and marital separation, and a schoolyard scuffle. There is a subtle reference to local gangsters and a young woman has an apparently out of wedlock baby. There are sweet kisses on the cheek and a joke about sexual harassment. A strength of the film is its portrayal of dedicated, talented, devoted, accomplished women and minorities.
Families who see this movie should talk about what made Akeelah not want to enter the spelling bee and what made her decide to do it. Why did her friend not want to be her friend? Why did her mother not want her to participate? What was the most important lesson Akeelah learned from Dr. Larrabee, and what was the most important thing he learned from her?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Spellbound, the outstanding documentary about the national spelling bee. My interview with Fishburne is in Beliefnet.com. And every family should read the wonderfully inspiring quote from Marianne Williamson (often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela):
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we subconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.