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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Akeelah and the Bee includes mild language ("s--t") and early on, some "attitude" from the young girl at its center. But that's mostly a show to try to "fit in," a thematic concern throughout the film for both Akeelah and adults around her. A related theme is coping with loss; a couple of sad conversations recall the deaths of loved ones (one by gun violence, another by disease), and divorce. Characters lie to protect loved ones and must make amends. In a couple of scenes, a mother and daughter argue. A couple of women characters wear tight tops; the girl's coach has a drink one evening alone.
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What's the story?
Intelligent and charming, AKEELAH AND THE BEE traces the delicate, courageous process of a little girl's growing up. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a resolute, self-protecting 11-year-old with a gift for spelling. Trying to "fit in" with her classmates at a middle school in Los Angeles' Crenshaw district, she misses her father (killed by gunfire when she was six) and doesn't see enough of her hardworking mother Tanya (Angela Bassett) or starting-to-act-tough brother. After she wins a classwide bee, her principal (Curtis Armstrong) decides she should compete: he wants to promote the school, but he's also drawn to the earnestness of this brilliant girl who's been "left behind" by a dysfunctional school system. He solicits the help of his imposing friend Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), who agrees to coach Akeelah if she agrees to clean up her language, study hard, and above all, believe in herself. Akeelah doesn't quite trust this interloper, and is disinclined to give up what she understands as her individuality to accommodate him. Larabee, however, points out that her notion of independence is only conformity. The film focuses on Akeelah's growing respect for Larabee and his increasing trust of her and her evolving relationship with her practical, hardworking mom. But it is in her relationships with other kids that Akeelah is a stand-out in this formula film. She goes through some back-and-forth with her best friend at school, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), who thrills to Akeelah's success initially, then feels left out of the bee crowd. Akeelah's bee friends, Javier (J.R. Villarreal) and Dylan (Sean Michael), make her feel like less of a misfit, because they share her interests, her drive, and, at least to an extent, her gift.
Is it any good?
In large part, the film's delights have to do with Palmer's winning performance, most apparent in one-on-one scenes with Tanya or Larabee. But the movie has something else going on as well. Embracing the conventions that make so many other genre films feel stale, Akeelah torques them slightly too. Akeelah finds her spelling in a particular sort of physical rhythm, tapping out letters on her thigh with her fingers or hearing the letters in her head as she jumps rope. She not only embodies her gift and her passion, but she also inspires new ways of thinking about intellectual activities. When Larabee tells her that he needs "a lot of order" in his life, Akeelah demonstrates ways that order might be felt.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the importance of pursuing your interests and dreams, especially as this can inspire collaborations. How does Akeelah's success in Akeelah and the Bee inspire others to feel part of a group, as her spelling becomes a community project? How can you be true to lost loved ones by moving forward into the future?
How is the issue of overly competitive parents addressed in the film?
How is Akeelah's school contrasted with the suburban school she goes to to practice spelling and hang out with her new friends?
- In theaters: April 28, 2006
- On DVD or streaming: August 29, 2006
- Cast: Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne
- Director: Doug Atchison
- Studio: Lionsgate
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character Strengths: Courage, Perseverance, Self-control
- Run time: 112 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: some language.
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