Akeelah and the Bee

Opens at Seven Gables and other theaters, Fri., April 28. Rated PG. 112 minutes.

In the first movie to enjoy Starbucks' mass-marketing muscle, which includes in-store promotions and special barista screenings (soon, total world domination!), 11-year-old Akeelah (Keke Palmer) talks all "ain't" and "giiiiiiiiiirl, please" on the scrappy streets of south L.A., but she's a secret Scrabble master who can spell "pulchritude" as easily as she can double Dutch. With encouragement and assistance from her principal (Curtis Armstrong) and an emotionally haunted tutor (Laurence Fishburne), Akeelah progresses in the Scripps National Spelling Bee with mixed feelings. Her deceased father inspired her fascination with words, but her eternally hardworking mother (Angela Bassett) doesn't see any use in the competition—especially when Akeelah slips in her other schoolwork and begins hobnobbing with rich kids on the other side of town.

The plot's as recycled as the cardboard cup holding my grande nonfat chai latte. Thus, we have a few montages with eccentric tutelage methods; one or two face-offs where our underdog smacks down the too-smug favorite; an entire neighborhood that comes together to cheer its orthography champ; and a heartwarming turn when gruff Fishburne overcomes his past traumas. Is this Finding Forrester? Good Will Hunting? Man Without a Face? A twist on Spellbound? You get the idea, and if you like those movies, you won't have any problem with Akeelah's core predictability.

As an extra benefit, Palmer is delightful, D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L, delightful. I found myself waiting impatiently for the seasoned Fishburne to run through his maudlin lines so Palmer could get back to doing her sassy, sweet spelling thing. And I, too, fell a little bit in love with her bee crush, Javier, who valiantly stalls at the mike onstage to give Akeelah time to deal with a family crisis.

 
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