I attended an advance screening of Akeelah and the Bee last weekend. It's about a middle schooler from the Crenshaw section of Los Angeles who harnesses her natural spelling talent to compete at a more stressful level. A fantastic film, and another example of the inherent drama of spelling bees. If it's good enough for TV (the National Spelling Bee on ESPN), a documentary (Spellbound), and a book (Bee Season), it's definitely fit for a full-length feature.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for this subject. I've always been an excellent speller. As a high school senior, I placed fourth in my state. (I was spared the stress of competing outside middle school, so I'll never know if I could have shown early Indian mastery.)
I'm a visual speller by nature; I picture the word in front of me, and write it into the air to make sure. Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) has a more auditory approach, tackling each letter like a single drumbeat. Left to her own devices by a busy single mother (Angela Bassett, still exhibiting pulchritude at 48), she studies her giant dictionary and plays online Scrabble. Encouraged by her school principal (Curtis Armstrong) to be formally coached, she visits the home of a semi-retired professor and constant gardener (Laurence Fishburne, who gets to play Miyagi, or at least a variation of his Furious Styles 15 years later). He takes the opportunity to educate Akeelah, rather than have her memorize vocabulary words.
The film is consistently upbeat and positive. Akeelah befriends a Hispanic boy from a wealthier part of the city (and who has to be the most well-adjusted adolescent ever), and meets her intellectual peers. There's the Chinese kid with the high-pressure father/coach who's due to win it all, but even he's not villainous. But most of your attention is directed toward the local community, who embrace Akeelah's newfound fame but also are willing to help.
Sorry for the momentary logorrhea. I'll revert to brevity.