Movie review: 'First Grader' at the head of the class
Tired of mindless blockbusters and soulless art house films? How about a movie with a heart the size of the African savannah? That would be "The First Grader," the uplifting true story of Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan tribesman who decides to enroll in school for the first time at the age of 84.
Maruge wants to go to school so he can learn to read a letter sent to him by the government. Its contents remain a mystery until the end. Now he could simply ask someone to read the letter for him, but then there would be no story. Pride plays a factor, too.
As a child, Maruge was denied an education when the country was under British colonial rule. As a young man, he would fight for Kenyan independence as a Mau Mau freedom fighter and pay a heavy price.
When the film opens in 2003, the Kenyan government has promised free education, and children, with their parents, rush to enroll. When Maruge shows up at the primary school in his remote, rural village, he's initially turned away, informed that the school is for children. He argues that the free education pledge applies to all Kenyans, regardless of age. School officials try to deter him by imposing other requirements such as a uniform. Undeterred, Maruge makes his own uniform.
Thanks to the efforts of the school's head teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), Maruge gets his chance to learn, arriving in a small, crowded schoolhouse where his fellow students are 6 years old. The school has 50 desks for 200 students.
The film then documents Maruge's efforts to learn despite repeated attempts by bureaucrats and parents to remove him from a school they believe should be for children. Their argument is his presence denies a place for a child. Obinchu is not spared either as threats get made and rumors spread to make her back down.
The film's emotional impact comes from multiple fronts. Particularly gut-wrenching are the flashbacks to Maruge's past where we see him brutally tortured. The scene involving his family had the woman sitting next to me at the screening sobbing.
On the more smile-provoking side are Maruge's interactions with the children who go beyond cute. Take note that none of them is an actor. They are all actual Kenyan schoolchildren and the movie was shot in an actual Kenyan village. At the question-and-answer session following the screening, director Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") said only nine "outsiders" were involved in the shoot. Harris, a British actress whose screen credits include "28 Days Later," is one of the few professional thespians in the movie while Oliver Litondo, who plays Maruge, makes his film debut here. His resume includes a stint as a TV news reader in Kenya.
The authenticity shows. A moving scene involving Maruge and a young girl with a disability came about by happenstance, according to Chadwick, as the girl had been very shy. Chadwick said he simply instructed her to walk over and sit down next to Maruge. Their resulting conversation will jerk a few tears.
Overall, the script by Ann Peacock ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") pulls at the heartstrings like a strongman trying to pull a tractor-trailer. It also a features a deejay for some comic commentary.
The aforementioned authenticity also applies to the film's sensational music, and it's not just there as background. It comes from Kenya's past and thus serves the plot where history plays such a significant role.
"The First Grader" also benefits from first-rate performances by Litondo and Harris. As Maruge, Litondo displays a combination of dignity, cantankerousness, kindness and a rebellious spirit that age has not diminished. And in one scene he shows he can still shake his tail feather. Harris, meanwhile, brings to the role of Obinchu determination, compassion and passion without the histrionics.
The film still can't escape moments of melodrama as it piles on the plotlines. One involves an abusive father of a dyslexic student, which never gets resolved. The film also shows a penchant for painting characters in black and white brush strokes with only a few shades of gray. At least some of the children misbehave.
It would be easy to pigeonhole "The First Grader" in the "inspiring teacher" category along with such films as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "To Sir With Love," and while this film certainly qualifies, it serves up much more on its plate. Specifically, it highlights one man's struggle in the face of adversity to remain true to himself, while those unfamiliar with Kenya's recent history will witness the country's own struggle, albeit in shorthand.
Bottom line, if "The First Grader" doesn't stir in you any emotions, your pulse has just flunked out.
FYI, Maruge is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest student to enter primary school.
"The First Grader" is rated PG-13 for some disturbing violent content and brief nudity. Running time: 103 minutes.
"The First Grader"