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‘Akeelah and the Bee’ will push your buttons

Yes it’s manipulative, but Keke Palmer turns in a great performance
J.R. Villarreal and Keke Palmer are spelling bee competitors and friends in "Akeelah and the Bee."
J.R. Villarreal and Keke Palmer are spelling bee competitors and friends in "Akeelah and the Bee."Lionsgate

Like last year’s “Bee Season,” the Tony-winning “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Spellbound,” writer-director Doug Atchison’s “Akeelah and the Bee” finds behind-the-scenes drama at a spelling contest for precocious children.

The subject is surprisingly surefire, so much so that you wonder why Atchison works up such a sweat trying to demonstrate its potential. His movie is pretty irresistible, especially if you succumb easily to emotional stories about teacher-student relationships, but he sometimes works too hard to make emotional connections and tie up loose ends.

Akeelah, played by the delightfully natural Keke Palmer, is an 11-year-old African-American from South Los Angeles, clearly talented but a problem student. She’s casual about her homework and her attendance record is lousy. Her distracted, widowed mother (Angela Bassett) fails to recognize her uncanny ability to spell difficult words, but her principal (Curtis Armstrong) sees it, and so does an embittered teacher (Laurence Fishburne, who also co-produced the movie).

The early scenes betray a tendency on Atchison’s part to create trumped-up drama, as Akeelah forges a signature in order to enter a spelling bee. When her mother discovers the subterfuge and creates a scene, she has a showdown with the principal. The episode is played for maximum suspense, as Akeelah tries both to placate her mother and get back to the spelling bee before she’s disqualified.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t do much more than artificially raise the tension level. It’s not really necessary to keep the story rolling. Indeed, it’s a distraction from the real drama here: very young kids competing with each other while discovering a bond they can’t help but share.

Whenever Atchison focuses on Akeelah’s interaction with the other kids, especially her charmingly persistent would-be boyfriend Javier (J.R. Villarreal) and her robotic rival Dylan (Sean Michael Afable), the movie seems honest and fresh. Especially effective is Akeelah’s manipulation of the final rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, as she takes control of the situation and surprises just about everyone.

Also quite affecting are the scenes in which Akeelah is essentially alone, doing her homework and communing with the memory of her father, while police sirens play on a continuous loop in the background. Locked in a cubicle, surrounded by clear evidence of the potential for street violence, she’s already seen too much of this corner of the world.

At moments like these, Atchison recalls the more contemplative touches in such ghetto classics as John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood.” At first glance, Akeelah may seem little more than a trash-talking brat, but Atchison gradually reveals the reasons for her insolence and despair. So does Palmer, who almost erases the predictability of Akeelah’s softening toward her frustrated teachers.

By the time the movie’s over, you may feel a bit bludgeoned — as if you’d been subjected to an overcooked afterschool special. It’s the commitment of Atchison and his actors that ultimately wins you over and makes the movie’s faults seem minor.