Queen ‘Bee’

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“Akeelah and the Bee”Lions Gate FilmsWritten and directed by Doug AtchisonStarring: Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, Sahara Garey and J.R. VillarrealRated PG/112 min.Opens April 28, 2006Three-and-a-half out of four stars

Some movies announce their greatness from the very first frame. Others sneak up on you, gently building their stories and their characters in surprising and delightfully touching ways.

Doug Atchison’s “Akeelah and the Bee” is one such movie-a “feel-good flick” that transcends that soppy, condescending title and earnestly engages our emotions on a purely human level. At last, here is a family film that will thrill and maybe even inspire kids, and it won’t insult the intelligence of their parents.

Newcomer Keke Palmer astounds as Akeelah, a 10-year-old girl with a brain beyond her years. Her propensity for wordplay attracts the attention of Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a Columbia professor who coaches her to the national spelling bee where more than just a trophy is at stake.

“Akeelah” gathers a lot of shopworn elements off the shelf-the disapproving single parent (Angela Bassett), the wise but tortured mentor and the community that bets its self-worth on the underdog victory of one of its own. If that all sounds instantly familiar, buck up because writer-director Atchison gives his characters life beyond their formulaic confines.

As the mentor figure, Fishburne could easily have slipped into Morpheus mode. Luckily, the script gives him a vulnerability to match his Merriam-Webster platitudes. When he abruptly discontinues his coaching sessions with Akeelah, it’s not out of the movie’s need to inject a crisis; it’s out of Dr. Larabee’s own fears.

Angela Basset fills the role of the disapproving single parent, but curiously the movie doesn’t make a huge deal out of her disapproval-as a matter of fact, she gets over it fairly quickly, as any reasonable parent would. We sympathize with her because her disapproval comes from a true place.

Palmer plays Akeelah not as cute and precocious, or as a stubborn urbanite waiting to be molded by a tango-dancing Spaniard, but as a headstrong girl who creates her own destiny with the help of her family and some unexpected friends.

In other words, Akeelah is a living, breathing character who learns and grows until the very last scene. Screenwriting teachers will tell you that great stories grow out of characters-that couldn’t be more the case here.

The movie does fast-forward through some of the smaller dramas (the sociological pressure Akeelah feels comes and goes like the stomach flu), but that’s OK-“Akeelah and the Bee” does such a good job at developing its characters that, by the end, we may not be surprised by the outcome, but we are uncommonly moved.