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Doug Atchison's sweet-natured, immensely likable family film recasts the innate human drama of the spelling bee — captured memorably in the 2002 documentary Spellbound — in the familiar but satisfying terms of an after-school special. Keke Palmer plays a bright eleven-year-old languishing in an underfunded, underequipped South Central L.A. public school; when her principal hits upon the PR strategy of entering a student in a bee competition, with the help of a Zen-like instructor (Laurence Fishburne in Morpheus mode), the girl accepts the challenge and ignites the hopes of her neighborhood. Fantasy may be the right word for a movie in which study alone overcomes all the savage inequalities of poverty, in which all bad people have some inner gold, in which circumstance ultimately favors the good at heart. But these are fantasies worth believing in, and because of Palmer, we do believe. If you can keep from biting your nails when Akeelah gets argillaceous, or from tearing up at the resolution, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Now playing at select local theaters


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