Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Akeelah and the Bee": a brief review

I watched "Akeelah and the Bee" this evening. It's a spelling bee movie, which means you're going to see montages involving scared kids in front of microphones and audiences. For me, the movie brought back memories of my own days as a spelling bee contestant both in elementary and junior high school. In the sixth grade, I ended up as school champion, then spelled out on the word "muumuu" in the Alexandria regional bee. The winner that year, whose name I will never forget until Alzheimer's rips it from my brain, won the contest on the easy-to-spell "aerotrain." I got third place and, quite to my surprise, was serenaded with "He's a Jolly Good Fellow" when I entered Mr. Davis's classroom the following morning. Suddenly, third place didn't seem so bad. And luckily for me, my parents weren't obsessive about my winning first place in any contest; they simply told me to do my best. (By the way, Mr. Davis remains one of my favorite teachers.)

Akeelah Anderson is an eleven-year-old who has skipped a grade to enter Crenshaw Middle School, where she cuts classes and is generally unmotivated. But her English teacher notices that she is able to ace her spelling tests with no effort at all. This attracts the attention of the school's principal, and Akeelah is invited to participate in the school spelling bee. There is a good chance she will win the bee and represent Crenshaw in the regionals, and perhaps go even as far as the nationals. Akeelah, fearing the ostracism that comes which appearing too brainy, is hesitant at first but reluctantly participates. She wins as predicted, but when the contest is over, a gentleman stands up and asks her, over the protests of some of the adults, to spell a series of far more difficult words than those used in the bee. Akeelah successfully spells them all, except for "pulchritude." Abashed and convinced she has somehow failed, she runs out of the auditorium.

The gentleman turns out to be a Dr. Joshua Larabee, an ex-Ivy League prof who is the former roommate (or was it classmate?) of Crenshaw's principal. Larabee sees Akeelah's incredible potential and decides to take Akeelah under his wing. You can guess the rest of the movie, I think.

But despite the film's predictability, I'm happy to say that "Akeelah and the Bee" is perceptively written. It's very L.A. in how it deals with issues of race, family, and neighborhood (the movie begins and is largely centered on South L.A.); it also treats typically American themes like self-esteem, drive, friendship, and sportsmanship. Much of the movie centers on the contestants themselves-- kids who form rivalries and bonds of friendship.

Perhaps most striking for me was how the movie plays up the Asian/black rivalry, with a controlling Asian father as the bad guy, pushing his son ever harder to win the national bee on his third try. While the portrayal of the Asian family was stereotypical, it also had the ring of truth about it-- the racism, the insane competitiveness, the take-no-prisoners attitude. Akeelah's own formation under the tutelage of Dr. Larabee makes for a winning contrast: far from learning the mere what of words by memorizing lists and lists of them, she also learns the why and how of words-- their origins, histories, and usage in context. Dr. Larabee insists that Akeelah, once comfortable with the idea that large words are often composed of smaller words (which provides a clue to their spelling), will be able to tackle words she has never seen before.

The movie definitely inspires. I like the way Roger Ebert ended his own review of "Akeelah and the Bee." He wrote:

Now I am going to start dancing around the plot. Something happens during the finals of the National Bee that you are not going to see coming, and it may move you as deeply as it did me. I've often said it's not sadness that touches me the most in a movie, but goodness. Under enormous pressure, at a crucial moment, Akeelah does something good. Its results I will leave you to discover. What is ingenious about the plot construction of writer-director Doug Atchison is that he creates this moment so that we understand what's happening, but there's no way to say for sure. Even the judges sense or suspect something. But Akeelah, improvising in the moment and out of her heart, makes it air-tight. There is only one person who absolutely must understand what she is doing, and why -- and he does.

This ending answers one of my problems with spelling bees, and spelling bee movies. It removes winning as the only objective. Vince Lombardi was dead wrong when he said, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing" (a quote, by the way, first said not by Lombardi but in the 1930s by UCLA coach Henry "Red" Sanders -- but since everybody thinks Lombardi said it, he won, I guess). The saying is mistaken because to win for the wrong reason or in the wrong way is to lose. Something called sportsmanship is involved.

In our winning-obsessed culture, it is inspiring to see a young woman like Akeelah Anderson instinctively understand, with empathy and generosity, that doing the right thing involves more than winning. That's what makes the film particularly valuable for young audiences. I don't care if they leave the theater wanting to spell better, but if they have learned from Akeelah, they will want to live better.

And that seems like a good way to end this review, too. I challenge anyone not to feel a bit better about the human race after watching this film. Sure, it's calculated to be a feel-good movie, but I came away thinking that there's still hope for us.


1 comment:

Reel Fanatic said...

I know exactly what you mean about this one ... I usually detest manipulatively feel-good movies, but this one was just smart as it was all-around entertaining