The Power of Performance

Sarala, and Keke Palmer are two young ladies who power the heart and soul of the recent films "Water" and "Akeelah and The Bee"





Sarala, right, with John Abraham in "Water" (Photo: Fox Searchlight);  Keke Palmer in "Akeelah and the Bee" (Photo: Saeed Adyani).  It is no accident that the performances from these two newcomers are a big reason that both films are among the very best of the year so far.

    Two films in limited release in North America right now are receiving huge critical acclaim, if not equally huge audiences.  Opening on the final weekend of this past April, both "Water" (directed by Deepa Mehta) and "Akeelah and the Bee" (directed by Doug Atchison) feature amazing performances by two young ladies not yet in their teens.  "Water" introduces the world to nine-year-old Sarala, who had never acted before on the big screen.  Sarala hails from Sri Lanka and plays Chuyia, an eight-year-old widow child forced to live in a penitent state with like-situated women who are deemed pariahs of the male-dominated society under the Hindu religious scriptures in India.  The amazing aspect of Sarala's remarkable acting is that she could speak neither Hindi nor English and instead had to learn each line of her dialogue in a word-by-word phonetic process.  Sarala communicated with director Deepa Mehta through hand signals via an interpreter.  Of any actor this year, Sarala's confident and mature work as the woman-child who stands tall and heroic in "Water", may be the best thus far.

    The production notes for "Water", a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, describe the process of finding a young girl to play the pivotal role of Chuyia.  Ms. Mehta had auditioned "more than 50 young girls."  The notes later continue: "Sarala seemed to intuit exactly the right combination of youthful innocence and unflagging independence."  Ms. Mehta declared that she is "an amazingly natural talent and truly became the heroine of 'Water'."  Sarala may or may not appear in another film in her lifetime, but in "Water" she makes a strong case for an Oscar, BAFTA, Bollywood, Cesare or any other major film award with her rich, complex performance.

    The same can be said for Keke Palmer, a young American who won't be 12 until near the end of August.  Ms. Palmer, who has acted in relatively small movie roles on at least two prior occasions, gets her first lead role in the crowd-pleasing "Akeelah and the Bee", a story about a reluctant whiz-kid from South Central Los Angeles who dazzles when pushed to enter several spelling bee contests.  Ms. Palmer is something of a renaissance woman at her tender age.  She also sings and dances, and makes a riveting impression in a film where she plays opposite Oscar-nominated veteran actors Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. 

    According to the Lions Gate film's production notes, there were auditions of 300 young girls in three American cities: Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York.  As part of Ms. Palmer's audition, she had to read a speech that appears in the movie.  Director Doug Atchison reveals: "Keke was very special.  She was the only kid that was moving her eyes back and forth as if she was actually reading something that was on the wall."  The director had nothing but admiration for Ms. Palmer.  "It was powerful to watch. . . I wanted somebody who understood Akeelah and with whom I could have a collaborative relationship, who, as an actor, would make this character her own.  Keke displayed all those qualities."

    Keke Palmer was appreciative of Mr. Atchison's methods while on the set of "Akeelah".  "As a director, Doug was completely capable of guiding me. . . and helping me realize the character I needed to be."  One of her fellow actors on the film, Sean Michael, who plays Akeelah's rival Dylan, offers this observation: "She's always there, you know, a big personality on set and it's funny just to watch her put a smile on everybody else's face."  Ms. Palmer's previous big-screen roles were "Medea's Family Reunion" earlier this year, and "Barbershop 2: Back in Business", which was released in 2004.

    Ms. Palmer has been tipped by many to go far.  Her acting range in "Akeelah and the Bee" is astounding.  It is not known what project Ms. Palmer will be undertaking next, but she will surely have plenty of scripts to keep her busy.

    Both films featuring these amazing talents are moving examples of integrity and heart-and-soul-acting that reaches the audience in a profound way.  "Water" and "Akeelah and the Bee" offer audiences very different, but similarly hopeful visions of the future for young women in disadvantaged circumstances.  And where Sarala and Keke Palmer are concerned, the circumstances following their special performances can only get sweeter.

"Water" and "Akeelah and the Bee" are playing in cities across the United States and Canada.  "Water" will open in Germany on July 6 (during the World Cup of Football) and in India this November, where its reception is sure to be quite raucous and controversial.

Originally published: April 2006