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Keke Palmer, star of Akeelah and the Bee, a spelling-bee drama that opens nationwide today, has just challenged us to a game of hangman.

Like Akeelah's title character — an L.A. girl who makes it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee — the 12-year-old Palmer loves competing, especially with words. Within two minutes, a stick figure is dangling from the gallows Palmer has drawn. "You're not very good at this, are you?" she asks.

Palmer is exceptionally good in Akeelah, a feel-good movie written and directed by Doug Atchison. It plays like any number of sports flicks — Remember the Titans, Glory Road — in which scrappy underdogs overcome myriad obstacles to come out on top.

Only Akeelah celebrates words. Atchison came up with the story more than a decade ago, but the recent success of spelling-bee doc Spellbound opened the door for Hollywood. "Spellbound got the idea out there that spelling bees are fun, competitive, and interesting," he says. "It was a good thing for us."

Atchison says that Palmer — who was nominated for a Screen Actor's Guild Award last year for her role in TNT's The Wool Cap — immediately won him over. "She's so natural," he says. "She was so connected to the part."

Akeelah also stars Laurence Fishburne as a former spelling-bee competitor who preps Akeelah, and Angela Bassett (reuniting with Fishburne for the first time since What's Love Got to Do With It) as the girl's doubting mother. But this is Akeelah's movie. "You don't need to know how to play basketball to enjoy Hoosiers," says Atchison. "And you don't need to know how to spell words to enjoy Akeelah." See Film for review.
Fri., April 28

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