Just got back from the opening night film of the 15th Philadelphia Film Festival, Akeelah and the Bee. The writer/director Doug Atchison was there with the producer/actor Laurence Fishburne, for whom this was clearly a labor of love. As he said afterward, he came on as one of the producers and starred knowing that would help the script he loved so much get made. And it’s a decent script. Occasionally clichéd, yes, but that, in part, is deliberate. The director explained that he patterned this after classic sports films (and to be sure, there are as many training montages in this as Rocky IV), but what he felt is revolutionary is the choice of protagonists. And you know what? He’s absolutely right.
I would consider this film’s greatest achievement to be a social one. Never before, to my knowledge, or to anyone else in the theater, has a major motion picture (at this point, I think we can call Lionsgate “major”) had a little black girl as the lead. And I mean in every scene but one. If you can think of one, even an indie, please leave it in the comments. And for that, and the positive portrayal of black youth — especially little girls — I applaud the filmmakers (as Fishburne said, “This one’s for the girls.”). Now, that doesn’t negate the fact that the little girl’s performance is uneven. And in an odd way. The very emotional scenes, the Oscar clips, if you will, are pretty well done. It’s the everyday stuff that just isn’t there. It’s kind of like when I saw Bono on an off-night and he could hit the impossibly high notes just fine but his mid-range was practically gone.
There is one outstanding child performance in the film to which I must give a shout-out however, and that’s J.R. Villarreal as Javier, a student who befriends Akeelah during her travails. Keep an eye on him.
One other oddity. The logos that appeared before the credits included Lionsgate (sure, they made it), 2929 (even more indie cred from Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner), and…wait for it…Starbucks Entertainment. You should have heard the harrumphs that echoed through the crowd when that appeared. Now, I kind of vaguely knew somewhere in the back of my head that Starbucks was getting into the movie game, but I’m not quite prepared for the folks who make my lattes to also make my indie entertainments. And, frankly, there were times when this film felt like it was made at Starbucks. However, I will say there was at least one good plot twist I didn’t see coming.
Anyhoo, after the Q&A which was mostly local educators saying how much they liked the film, a group of trolleys arrived to take us all to the opening night party, which I promptly opted out of because I’m a wuss and wanted to get home and go to bed.
Tomorrow: A film I’ve seen already and a film you’ll all be able to see in about a week.