Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Which Spelling Bee to Watch?

I’ve always enjoyed a good spelling bee, but I must admit, I thought it might be boring on film. That’s true of one of these movies: Akeelah and the Bee vs. Bee Season. One is, indeed, rather boring, not to mention confusing, but the other is an uplifting, fun ride.

Bee Season came out in 2005, and involves 12-year-old Eliza, who enters a school spelling bee and magically wins. She keeps entering bees, going up level after level, and watches her family dysfunctionally spin off her success. Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche star.

It’s actually fun watching Richard Gere as the intense father, a professor who intellectualizes with the best of them, one who thinks he’s doing the best for his family when he barely communicates at all with them. This is the kind of role Gere was meant to play, so very earnest but slightly creepy with a smile that burns intensely as he expects his family to be what he wants them to be. I wish the same could be said of Binoche, the award-winning actress, but she’s really caught in a maelstrom of confusing plotlines.

Actually, besides Gere’s performance, the best thing that can be said about this movie is that it was filmed in Oakland, and if you can see past the fog of the family's depression, you'll see how beautiful parts of the city truly are. Unfortunately, the family’s problems with each other aren’t clearly explained, and it’s hard to follow the progression of the plot.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006), despite being made for far less money (the first that Starbucks has produced), is the far more enjoyable film. 11-year-old Keke still feels the death of her father, and seeks advice from Dr. Larabee, played by Laurence Fishburne, when she decides she’s going to enter a spelling bee. The movie is about the development of her relationship with this professor, who has had his own losses, and how their relationship affects her family and even her community. The marvelous Angela Bassett co-stars.

Akeelah and the Bee is a wonderful movie, full of realistic, feel-good moments that come out of real relationships. The tension in the spelling bee scenes is palpable, and dramatically filmed so that we viewers feel that tension.

Truth be told, Bee Season had the toughest of challenges: converting a well-read book into a movie, and making sense of internal stories. The project meant well, but falls rather flat. So, if you have a choice, I would recommend that you see the uplifting and engaging Akeelah and the Bee rather than the edgy but slow Bee Season.

Thumb's up for Akeelah and the Bee, but Thumb's Down for Bee Season.


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