Akeelah and the Bee is a great movie for anyone who loves words and books, but it's also an enjoyable family flick for anyone, no matter their academic history. Eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson is a smart, plucky heroine dealing with real-life issues--she wants and needs to express her gifts but feels that an unsupportive school, a rough family life, and her impoverished neighborhood are dragging her down. She gets unexpected help from Dr. Joshua Larabee, a professor who abandoned classroom teaching after a personal tragedy and coaches her all the way to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Akeelah also discovers that within her neighborhood, there exists a ton of love and support she wasn't aware of before.
Positive elements abound here. Dr. Larabee helps Akeelah embrace her identity and pushes her to do her best, though his methods can be stern at times. Akeelah learns to appreciate her family and neighbors, and opens up enough to make new friends along the way. In one key scene, she reaches out to help a boy once considered her enemy, and he returns the favor. Her final triumph is not in how well she can spell, but how much she and others around her have grown.
Some caveats exist. Akeelah's mother does not support her participation in spelling bees at first because she's terrified her daughter will lose a competition and become "one of 200 losers." Her expression of this is sometimes overly stern. Akeelah, for her part, deals with this through understandable but not always necessary disobedience.
Akeelah's family is struggling in many ways. Her older sister is a teen mom, and her older brother is on the cusp of gang life. Mrs. Anderson explains that her husband, with whom Akeelah was very close, was shot when the little girl was six in an act of random violence. Stereotypes of blacks and Asians are expressed. The father of Akeelah's biggest rival is an unsympathetic man who overworks and browbeats his son, which in turn causes him to bully the other competitors. Dr. Larabee disrespects Akeelah's heritage when he tells her to avoid "ghetto speak" in his home. The death of his young daughter from an unnamed illness is discussed.
In general, this movie is sure to become a classic, the millennial era's version of movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer. Join your children for a viewing, and don't be surprised if they show more enthusiasm about their spelling homework.