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o-b-v-i-o-u-s. obvious. from the latin "obviam", and meaning "frequently encountered." to use it in a sentence: "this film handles the story and characters in such an obvious way, you'll think you accidentally turned on the hallmark channel."
look, if you want to look at this as a kid's movie and evaluate it on that level, i would say nary a bad word about it. there is certainly far worse crud shoveled at eleven-year-olds every year. however, i want to give kids credit that they can handle more subtle and innovative films. some of my favorite movies when i was younger have only gotten richer with age as i've rewatched them and found new levels that i didn't fully appreciate before. this is not that movie.
as a movie for adults (and i have to use mild spoilers here), the treatment by writer/director doug atchison is so formulaic and full of tropes that when it breaks into something completely fantastical and totally unbelievable, you're almost thankful just to be surprised. our underdog sports hero, sorry, spelling hero comes from a tough neighborhood and doesn't have the support or resources to follow her talent to where it should take her. however the white guy who runs her gym, sorry, her school has financial considerations and sees an opportunity for her to take on the champion in her field. i mean, this guy never loses, he's unstoppable. but a freak occurrence gives rocky, sorry, akeelah a shot when despite her obviously lower ability she gets a chance to train and improve to try to go up against the champ. she gets a curmudgeony trainer named mick, oh sorry, dr. larabee who eventually bonds with her like his own kid. her whole community rallies behind her as we get plenty of montages of her training, running down the streets, oh man, sorry, i meant jump-roping down the streets. they all want her to win, but she just wants to hang in with the champ and go the distance, oh sorry...no wait, yeah, she literally does say "go the distance".
okay, look, it might be a little unfair to compare how much this film ripped off from rocky, seeing as how nearly every underdog sports film since then has taken some from rocky. most people would compare this to the karate kid (same director as rocky) due to it being about kids and there being some concern about bullying. there's also the absent father, like daniel's, and the hispanic friend who helps. and there's the ending, which is nearly the same image and has the same final words (although the words are also taken from rocky!) heck, i'm almost convincing myself this is a karate kid ripoff, but i guess i've just always focused more on the bullying and the love triangle in that movie.
the point is that pretty much everything this movie does, you've seen before. and you've seen it with less ham and cheese, not so many huge swelling music cues, not played so big and broad. the adults are almost uniformly playing this like a nickelodeon show, except for good 'ol larry fishburne, who is masterful as always. and by the way, i was going to complain that there's no way akeelah's mom has two nearly grown kids and looks like that...but then i realized mom was angela bassett, who was 48 at the time...i said good lord! unfortunately, ms. bassett spends most of the film in 1 of 2 modes: simmering angry or lashing out angry. she treats akeelah like she's a gangster instead of her child who skipped a grade and is doing everything she can to win an academic competition! it's yet another piece of obvious writing: you've got to have an authority figure oppose what the hero kid wants to do. regardless of if it makes any sense.
thankfully, the kids are uniformly great, and we do spend a lot of time with them. keke palmer went on to be a star and i don't need to tell anyone what a joy she is here. she's what saves this film really, because all that emotional manipulation did actually work on me a couple times when her and larry were on screen. i'm such a sucker, i can't resist sometimes even when i know what the movie is doing.
i should also mention that the film does get a lot of things right about the educational system. there are some pretty accurate details about the kinds of things that cause kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to get lower grades. lack of a support system, distractions at home, pressure from their friend groups and the need to code-switch, etc. however, the film of course goes too far by painting everyone who's not black in broad stereotypes while going out of its way to break stereotypes for the black community. the gangbanger's not who you think he is. the mentor speaks like a stodgy british professor. the sister seems like a too-young mother but turns out to be responsible and helpful. and best yet: the whole community sits around cheering for a spelling bee like it's a football game, complete with jumping out of their seats for a touchdown, sorry, i mean a correctly-spelled word.
if you're going to make a rocky or karate kid for the black community, i'd prefer this one to creed. the messaging is better here, and i think it works great as an aspirational movie for young people. but just appreciating it as a film, i'd recommend watching the classics until you wear them out before even giving this a shot. there's just not much refreshing here except the representation.
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