Akeelah and the Bee is an uplifting, family-oriented film that rises above its “Afternoon Special” subject matter. While treading familiar territory, it dodges most major genre clichés through the creative use of the story’s peripheral characters. The sound story structure at the heart of Akeelah and the Bee gives this “ghetto kid does good” an honest emotional resonance and earns its feel-good ending.
The Overall Story throughline is about a middle school seriously hurting for money just to provide the necessary basics. The principal decides to have a school spelling bee hoping that one of his students will make it to the nationals and bring exposure (and money) to the school (Overall Story Throughline: Activity; Story Goal: Obtaining). The principal enlists the help of his college pal, Dr. Larabee, a distinguished teacher and language scholar, to evaluate the students’ potential. Eleven-year-old Akeelah is a stand out and shows great potential.
Akeelah (Main Character) is an African American eleven-year-old girl from South Central Los Angeles with a natural gift for spelling (Main Character Domain: Situation). Driven by her feelings (MC Problem: Feelings), she is inclined to take the path of least resistance (MC Symptom of Temptation), choosing to skip classes to lessen her reputation as a “brainiac.” Only when Akeelah does what she is “supposed” to do does she feel fulfilled (MC Response: Conscience).
As one might expect, Akeelah makes it to the finals. Her school and community get great exposure. Her mentor, Dr. Larabee, gets a job at UCLA. And, in a split decision, she ties for first place (Story Outcome: Success). Akeelah beams (Story Judgment: Good).
The storyform for Akeelah and the Bee is straightforward. What is interesting, however, is the manner in which the Impact Character throughline is explored. Rather than the traditional single character Influence Character, the Influence Character functions are handled by many characters.
Dr. Larabee acts as Influence Character for most of Act I and Act II. About the middle of the film (or just after), the Influence Character functions are handed off to Akeelah’s mom and various community representatives in Act III. Act IV temporarily brings back Dr. Larabee as Influence Character, but he is soon replaced by spelling wunderkind Dylan.
Not only is this an interesting and less traditional way of representing the Influence Character—especially in this genre—it has an intriguing side effect. Since Akeelah is a Steadfast Main Character, ALL of the Influence Characters Change. That’s a whole lot of change characters in one story. Dr. Larabee goes back to work after a long sabbatical of disillusionment. Akeelah’s mother reconsiders pursuing the college degree she abandoned after feeling she couldn’t make it. Dylan intentionally misspells a contest-winning word when he realizes Akeelah has thrown the contest in his favor. Various South Central community figures recover belief in themselves and their community. Each of these illustrates a transformation from the Influence Character Problem of Disbelief to the Influence Character Solution of Faith.