Covered live by sports cable channel ESPN, watched by millions, participated in by the very select few and already the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary 'Spellbound', the National Spelling Bee contest pits youngsters from across the US against each other in an annual showdown to decide who is the nation's best speller. Now comes 'Akeelah and the Bee', a sweet and uplifting story about one young girl's route to the final.
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles with her single parent mother (Bassett), 11-year-old Akeelah (Palmer) is great at spelling but doesn't apply herself properly at school, for fear of standing out as a swot. Pushed by headmaster Mr Welch (Armstrong) into entering the school's first Spelling Bee, she wins it easily and is then offered the chance to work with Welch's friend Dr Larabee (Fishburne) for the regional final.
Larabee, an on-sabbatical English literature professor who reached the National Spelling Bee final himself as a teen, is not an easy person to warm to. Strict and serious, he refuses to accept any slang in Akeelah's vocabulary and puts her through an intensive course of Latin and Greek. But while there's a possibility that a great friendship could develop between them, what they have in common could also push them apart - both have suffered personal tragedy and both could fail to fulfil their potential by letting fear get in the way.
While there's a temptation to dismiss 'Akeelah and the Bee' as 'Good Will Spelling', there aren't enough (good) heartwarming films like this for either younger or older audiences. Yes, there are a couple of big speeches and overdone facial expressions from expectant parents, but director Atchison always keeps the story on the right side of watchable.
The performances here are all excellent but for a film about realising what's possible, Atchison makes one big mistake. Having reunited 'What's Love Got to Do With It?' stars Fishburne and Bassett in the same film, he only gives them two scenes together – a huge missed opportunity. Compensating for this shortfall, however, are his young stars, in particular Palmer, who is perfect in the lead role.
If you're not smiling by the close, chances are you never had to stand up from your desk and spell something like 'inspirational' in front of anyone.