Has cinema gotten nerdier? In the wake of Spellbound, Word Wars, Proof, Bee Season and Wordplay comes Akeelah and the Bee, about an 11-year-old black girl (Keke Palmer, outstanding) from the projects who defies all odds to reach the white-dominated national spelling bee. This sweet and funny family drama is an unexpected success in an abysmal year for movies, and it has thematic undercurrents about parental responsibility and the sins of the father that echo Magnolia more than you'd think (a theme it doesn't, well, spell out for the viewer). Characters that are often stock types ' the unsupportive mother (Angela Bassett), the upper-class, elitist villain (Sean Michael) and the inspirational coach (Laurence Fishburne) ' are given a fresh re-envisioning thanks to director Doug Atchison's literate screenplay, which (for a Hollywood movie) is not afraid to be intellectual. Atchison's direction keeps the competition scenes compelling with nerve-racking suspense, and while the film's exuberant pacing is burdened by a ponderous subplot involving the coach's deceased daughter, it's a minor quibble in a film that's very hard not to love. (PG)
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