Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Spelling a cast

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.


Julie said...

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

Don't forget the new Broadway musical: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee!

Neel Mehta said...

Thanks, Julie! That one slipped my mind.

Also, I forgot to mention: Curtis Armstrong's character had been principal at that school for seven and a half years. He's no dummy.

Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

(Laurence Fishburne, who gets to play Miyagi, or at least a variation of his Furious Styles 15 years later).

How could you leave out Vinnie, his character from one of the most underrated movies of all time, Searching for Bobby Fischer?

I'm excited about this movie, having finally just seen Spellbound on IFC.

Rob said...

Why are they called spelling bees?

Neel Mehta said...

APL: Searching for Bobby Fischer is so underrated that I've never gotten around to seeing it.

Rob: welcome. The origin of the term "spelling bee" is unclear. The best guess, as suggested here, is that the term "bee" applied to any congregation of community, which makes the title Akeelah and the Bee even more relevant.

If you ask me, though, applying that use of "bee" to spelling doesn't make sense. It's a catchy corruption, sort of the Travelgate of that time.

Janelle Renee said...

Verbosity is nice, too. Case in point: this post.

Quinn said...

Why is it I thought we saw "Searching" together? Midnight Freewater? I must be mixing you up with my substantial repetoire of Indian males.

Thinking Fool said...

How do you get to see all these advanced screenings? I'm going to see this movie because of your recommendation.

Neel Mehta said...

JR: Thanks, but that last sentence was just an excuse to use the word "logorrhea." You'll see why.

Quinn: You're confusing your Indian dudes. I remember a Freewater showing of Shadowlands -- it's the last time I cried at a movie. Though Akeelah got me a little misty for a moment. Still...

Tear Free Since '93!
(at the movies)

TF: Glad you asked. The Internet is good for lots of things, not just blogging and porn.

Local press in major cities need to see a movie before its release date so that they can file a timely review. The rest of the seats can be acquired through some promotions by radio and TV stations (check their websites for online contests), or in ads for local papers and weekly mags (flip through them to see if you can pick up passes at a local business). Also consider signing up for the local cinema chains' e-mail lists.

Entertainment Weekly and Wild About Movies set up screenings in various major cities for the occasional release. Then try the Movie Lovers blog and the recent posts of these forums.

My father and I saw Hoot (review forthcoming) a couple of weeks ago as part of a 45-city simulcast for students and teachers through Walden Media. But usually, studio offers are a longshot.

Finally, here are a few that are area-specific (you may find more in the forums):

Atlanta, other SE cities:


Screen It


Southwestern cities:

Campus Circle
Movie Filler

Hmm, maybe I should make an entry of this and update it every so often.

Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

*raises hand*

I cried at Shadowlands, too! In the theater, while sitting next to my then-boyfriend.

Quinn said...

Now I really am confused, since I have not seen Shadowlands

Neel Mehta said...

I neglected to mention that one of the executive producers is Mark Cuban. According to his blog, teachers can see the movie for free, and $100,000 will be awarded to the school who can boast the most attendees.