S-W-E-E-T spells lovely family film

2009-01-05 00:00

Akeelah Anderson (played excellently by Keke Palmer) is 11 and lives in the ghettoes of Los Angeles. Her father was shot dead when she was six and her overworked mother (a suitably haggard Angela Basset) is entirely preoccupied by her delinquent younger brother. As if her life wasn't hard enough, she attends a school so underfunded the toilets don't even have doors and the resident bullies torment her for being a brainiac.

Her one solace is words. Like her father did, she loves Scrabble and keeps a notebook of unusual words. So when her school has its first spelling bee, Akeelah's teachers make her enter despite her only wish: to lay low and not attract the attention of the bullies.

But she does very well and a visiting academic, Dr Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne), ends up coaching her, somewhat reluctantly at first. Of course, Akeelah goes all the way to the national champs, dogged by her own lack of belief in herself, her unsupportive mother, and by supercilious spelling prodigy Dylan. But she also has some good friends and a whole community ready to rally behind her (including, rather comically, the neighbourhood gangstas).

 The sentimentality is laid on very thick, but the movie never lacks sincerity. Writer-director Doug Aitchison makes learning etymology seem exciting, and the bees themselves are filmed in such a way as to provide a sense of the drama and intense competition. This goes some way to mitigating the extreme predictability of the plot, which runs to an exact formula, that very American idea of making it against all odds through hard work and self-realisation. It makes sense that it's promoted and sponsored by Starbucks - it's only a wonder there was so little product placement.

Akeelah is sweet, a movie that all ages will enjoy. And the cinemas at Nu Metro are sparkling after their refurbishment, so there really is no reason not to take the whole family. ****

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