Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. *

In addition to the graphic novel club that I run, I also do a movie club with the same group of girls.  So far we’ve watched ‘Ever After’ and ‘Strictly Ballroom’.  ‘Ever After’ was a pretty big hit with all the girls, but they were so-so about ‘Strictly Ballroom’.  For our most recent movie, I had them vote between ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ and ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ (misspelling intentional).  ‘Akeelah’ was the pick.

Quick synopsis

Akeelah Anderson is a super bright, but unmotivated 7th grader.  Her home situation isn’t horrible, but it’s complicated.  Her sister is a teen mom, one brother is hanging with the wrong crowd and the other is serving in the military.  Her mom is loving, but busy and distracted.  Akeelah’s school is underfunded and doesn’t challenge her at all.  Add to that, she has the normal teen desire to just blend in so she purposely hides her talents.  Thankfully, there are adults who notice that Akeelah is an uncommonly good speller and they prod her to compete in the upcoming school spelling bee.  It’s no spoiler to say that she wins the competition easily which means she’s now eligible for the regional competition.  If she wins that, it’s on to the state bee and then possibly nationals.

It’s your classic underdog story and even though it follows a pretty well-trod narrative trajectory (complete with the wise mentor with a painful past), it’s still compelling to watch because the plot is nicely paced and the actors are so good.

Akeelah and her coach/mentor, Dr. Larabee, discuss Frederick Douglas.  I love that he encouraged Akeelah to not just memorize word lists, but to read great literature too!

What did we think?

Every single girl in the club LOVED this movie!  And it’s funny because I’d hesitated to include this title in our list of possibles.  I worried that it was a bit ‘young’ and maybe even a little trite.  I think the fact that the heroine was roughly their age really helped them connect to the story in a strong way.  Add to that, she’s a realistic and flawed human.  At times Akeelah can be disrespectful and dishonest, and she suffers a lot of set backs that are a direct result of her actions.

Something I’ve started doing is asking the girls broad questions about the book or movie before we get into the more specific questions.  These are usually super simple questions just to get them talking and thinking.  This time I asked them who their favorite and least favorite characters were.

Almost universally they all picked Javier as their favorite.  Javier is a boy that  befriends Akeelah at the regional tournament.  He is sweet, charming, clever, funny and displays incredible sportsmanship.  He also lives a pretty privileged life, but the film doesn’t demonize him for that and I really appreciated that.  I love that the girls all responded to his character so strongly.

The adorable Javier and Akeelah congratulate eachother.

They also all universally loathed Mr. Chiu, the father of Akeelah’s main foe, Dylan.  More on him later.

Dylan getting a talking to by his dad, Mr. Chiu

I liked the movie a lot and enjoyed it even more because of the girls’ enthusiasm.  I had a few small bones to pick, however.

*Minor spoilers ahead*  

It was hard for me to accept that Akeelah’s mom would be so resistant to the bee and it really seemed tacked on to the story to add yet another dramatic hurdle.  On the other hand, I thought overall her character was portrayed realistically.  She was a complicated person with her own baggage and wasn’t always emotionally available to Akeelah.  As a result, I can see why Akeelah felt she couldn’t be entirely honest with her.

I found the characterization of Dylan and his dad potentially problematic.  Dylan’s dad was an over-the-top stereotype of the pushy Asian immigrant parent.  Where so much of the movie felt so true, this felt a little cheap and hollow.

Finally, I wish that Dr. Larabee had approached his opposition to black vernacular a little differently.  I think it was okay for him to insist that Akeelah speak grammatically correct while doing lessons, but I found his wholesale rejection of black speech a little troublesome.

The ending…well, it seemed a little melodramatic to me, but the girls loved it so I’ll leave it alone 😉

*This quote is misattributed to Nelson Mandela.  It was actually written by Marianne Williamson.