Pop culture seems to be growing less literate by the minute, but we're nevertheless in the midst of a bona fide wordsploitation boom. While the dumbing down of pop culture continues unabated, a nerdy insurgency has sprung up in the form of films on spelling bees, crossword puzzles, Scrabble, and other cerebral pastimes. Unsurprisingly, these movies have all been documentaries. After all, how could a fictional narrative possibly capture the visceral excitement of real obsessives placing letters in their correct order in a competitive, pressure-cooker environment?
Undaunted by such challenges, Akeelah And The Bee writer-director Doug Atchison puts a fictional spin on the wordsploitation boom by plugging all the magic and wonder of precocious, adorable children spelling difficult words into the time-tested plucky-underdog-beats-the-odds template. In the process, he's given word nerds their very own Karate Kid. Keke Palmer stars as a gifted young black student who's forced to hide her smarts to survive in a tough neighborhood. When she begins winning spelling bees, she attracts the attention of tough-but-loving word guru Laurence Fishburne, who volunteers to serve as her coach and ends up doing double duty as a father-figure. But will Angela Bassett's objections to her daughter's passionate new pursuit spell doom for Palmer's chances of making it to the national finals?
As the conceptually similar documentary Spellbound proved, spelling bees are innately dramatic. But that doesn't keep Atchison from constantly pushing the film toward theatrical moments instead of letting the drama arise organically from the story. The script piles on so many characters and subplots that a big chunk of its third act is devoted to a series of drive-by resolutions which tidily wrap up every last story strand and relationship. But if Atchison's well-acted, good-intentioned crowd-pleaser can trick even one moviegoer into thinking that knowledge and spelling are somehow cool, then his film will be performing a societal good that offsets its slack reliance on formula.