If only Akeelah and the Bee had existed when I was in the third grade. While most kids had their feel-good, underdog movies about basketball and little league, there wasn't much to encourage and inspire those of us who were physically inept and a little bit brainy (aside from some R-rated sex comedies celebrating super-nerds). The best thing about Akeelah is not that it merely empowers smart kids, though; it is that, unlike the majority of sports films, the film doesn't suggest that spelling has some kind of transcendental importance. It has its own equivalent of the big game, a national bee held in Washington, D.C., but the film is more concerned with the process of getting there, and it treats the finale like a pageant rather than a competition. While most underdogs seem to climax at the end of their films, the underdog of Akeelah and the Bee simply makes passage to the next part of her life.
Akeelah (superbly played by Keke Palmer) is an underdog both because, at 11-years-old she is on the younger side of spelling bee contestants, and also because she comes from a very poor district in South Los Angeles. Although she is shy and often embarrassed about being the smartest kid in class, she is convinced by her principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong) to participate in their school's first spelling bee. She wins the simple event and is offered coaching by Welch's friend Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a strict older man who begins their first session together by denying Akeelah the use of "ghetto talk." He then proceeds to teach her linguistics and literature, subjects that Akeelah initially thinks are a waste of time when she should be studying actual, specific words. Like an academic version of The Karate Kid, the film treats Larabee as a literary Mr. Miyagi, building up the girl's strengths without her first realizing it. The point of Larabee's methods is that regardless of whether or not Akeelah makes it to the national bee, let alone wins it, he is gifting her tools that will benefit her more than being a winner will. The film contrasts her preparation with that of rival speller Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael) -- stereotypically Asian, but whatever -- who has been successful by apparently memorizing the dictionary. His flaw is that he doesn't love words the way Akeelah does, and that his motivation seems more about pleasing his stern father than pleasing his own desires. One brilliant part of the film, though, partially contradicts its criticism of learning by rote. Larabee notices that Akeelah uses rhythmic association as a mnemonic aid, so he has her practice spelling while jumping rope. The exercise becomes a significant part of her study, and later, in what can be interpreted as a casual joke on sports movies, the jump rope figures prominently during a training montage.
In this time of spell-check devices, the ability to spell words seems an ancient necessity, and a spelling bee is just another kind of game shown on ESPN. Even a movie about spelling bees is forced, to a degree, into the conventions of a typical sports movie. Akeelah and the Bee, though, is about exceeding common expectations by circumventing routine paths, and the film succeeds, as does its titular protagonist, in the covering of new terrain.