AKEELAH AND THE BEE (Doug Atchison). 112 minutes. Opens Friday (April 28). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Akeelah And The Bee has a plucky protagonist, a long-shot showdown and a glorious victory. That's not spoiling the ending; it's naming the genre. People complain that every Hollywood sports movie is the same, but the differences are interesting, and the similarities are there for the same reason lovers always run to the airport in romantic comedies. It's irresistible.
Akeelah's major departure is that she's not an athlete but a spelling whiz. In dramatic terms, that's minor - sports network ESPN broadcasts America's national spelling bee for a reason. But the real pleasures of this movie come from how well it uses classic genre devices. Akeelah is talented but disadvantaged. The rich kids are snotty and better equipped. Her coach ( Laurence Fishburne ) is a gruff hard-ass. But this wiry underdog has grit on her side.
Keke Palmer brings huge reserves of charm and emotion to Akeelah. That works well off Fishburne's low-key Morpheus performance and almost makes up for the steroidal hyperbole of Angela Bassett 's work as Akeelah's mom. Bassett has never met a scene that she didn't think could use more righteous outrage.
The sports movie is Hollywood's most reliable genre right now - it doesn't need special effects or major stars but almost always delivers big emotion. I knew exactly where this movie was going, but it still nearly made me cry.