I can’t quite decide if The First Grader is overwritten and overdirected or underwritten and underdirected, but something is…off. And that’s a shame, since this inspirational drama is based on a true story with a necessary message. Written by Ann Peacock and directed by British filmmaker Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), The First Grader tells the tale of 84-year-old Kenyan Kimani Maruge (Oliver Litondo). In the 1950s, Maruge was a key Mau Mau resister to British colonial rule, but in 2004, he’s a wannabe first grader. As the story makes clear, both pursuits qualify him as a hero in the way he meets adversity with moral strength and endurance.
Clutching a newspaper headline announcing the Kenyan resolution to provide “free elementary school education for all,” Maruge shows up at his local school. He’s summarily dismissed—the classrooms are overcrowded as it is, and what if everyone came asking? But Maruge is determined to learn to read, better late than never. Told that only students with school uniforms can attend, Maruge pulls together his own schoolboy outfit.
This sight is more than young teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) can resist: she takes Maruge into her class. But there is hell to pay from administrators and politicians, who feel the heat from angry citizens worried about resources being taken from their children. Teacher Jane’s husband tells her, “Stick to the battles you can win” and a bureaucrat reminds her, “The children are Kenya’s future,” but there will be no taking “no” for an answer for the young woman or the old man, and they will protect each other to the end.
The film never answers the fair question of limited resources or explores any real consequences of that issue; rather, Peacock focuses on building up Maruge as a loveable special case. A survivor of imprisonment and torture, the forgotten hero deserves this small grace. The filmmakers put Maruge’s past traumas alongside his present challenges: the sharpening of a pencil is the occasion for a flashback to torture.
Obviously, everyone deserves the right to an education. The strength of The First Grader is in its unequivocal celebration of learning, and its reminder not to take what is unfortunately a privilege for granted (also, Chadwick shoots in Kenya, with a mostly Kenyan cast, for a crucial dosage of authenticity). The weakness of the film is in its blandness of character and obviousness of storytelling: it’s all kept storybook simple, though even kids will wonder, “Why won’t they just let the nice man learn? And why won’t they just leave his nice teacher alone?”
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]