"Spelling bees are serious sh*t!” Truer words have never been spoken, unfortunately we need to be reminded of this with all of the other serious shit distracting us from the central yarn of the film. Akeelah is an 11-year-old wordsmith from south Los Angeles. When her school’s principal discovers her aptitude for spelling he pressures her to vie for a spot in the Scripps national spelling bee. Akeelah must overcome her own insecurities, the objections of her mother (Angela Bassett), and the tough love approach of her new coach (Laurence Fishburne).
Her struggle serves to unite her family and community, who rally around the precocious young girl. The innumerable sub-plots, including a prepubescent love affair, a competitor’s overbearing father, and Akeelah’s troubled family history — which parallels that of her coach — cover all imaginable emotional ground but divert attention from the competition. Spelling bee culture is not significantly explored and the bee becomes a surrogate for any public competition, which itself acts as a surrogate for personal challenge. Keke Palmer’s commanding performance as Akeelah is the only unexpected element in an otherwise calculated, predictable film. I would also like to mention that Laurence Fishburne plays a spelling bee coach named Mr. Larabee. That’s funny.