[THE FIRST GRADER opens in Cleveland on Friday May 27th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
THE FIRST GRADER is based on the true story of Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo), a man who gave new meaning to the old saying, “you're never too old to learn”. Maruge earned himself a spot in the Guiness Book of World Records as the oldest person to ever start primary school, beginning when he was in his eighties. It's an inspirational story, but one that's also cut through with moments of sadness and even horror as Maruge flashes back to a painful past. As a young man, Maruge's wife and children were killed, and Maruge imprisoned and tortured by the British (and Kenyans allied with the British), for his part in the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950's.
But in the film's present of 2003 it has just been announced that the Kenyan government wants to give free education to everyone, provided they have a birth certificate. The small schoolhouse where Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) teaches is already overcrowded with young children, and she's not sure what to do with this octogenarian. At first she agrees with her assistant to send Maruge away, but the man's tenacity impresses her, until she eventually relents and lets him join the class. This sets off a chain reaction of media coverage, political maneuvering, and protests by some of the villagers who feel their children are being shortchanged in favor of this old man.
Aside from one feature film (2008's THE OTHER BOELYN GIRL), director Justin Chadwick comes from a television background, and it shows in his compositions. THE FIRST GRADER is polished (but not too slick) and straightforward meat-and-potatoes storytelling, with very little in the way of visual flourishes or directorial voice. There's still plenty of gorgeous African scenery shot in bold, vivid colors, though, and no flashy directorial style can improve on that.
The performances are good but largely undistinguished, with only Litondo really coming alive as anything more than a 2 dimensional type. At times the score feels a little too obvious and manipulative, and while we always care about what happens to Maruge and Jane, some scenes didn't have quite the emotional impact on me that I think they were going for. The power of the story itself is enough, though, that it carries the film through to a mostly satisfying conclusion despite the film's shortcomings.
One word of warning for parents, though. Although there is a very good, positive message about education to be found in THE FIRST GRADER, parents may want to use discretion before taking younger children to see it. There is no graphic violence shown onscreen, but some of what is suggested is still strong enough to be disturbing. There's a world of difference between the good natured comic book violence in a PG-13 movie like THOR and the more subdued but serious depiction here. 3 out of 4 stars.