The First Grader

The First Grader

***

Reviewed by: David Graham

British TV director follows his underwhelming but enjoyable theatrical debut The Other Boleyn Girl with the compelling true story of the oldest person to ever start primary school. The director is aided by the evocative Kenyan location, a raft of charming children and committed performances by Naomie Harris and newcomer (latecomer?) Oliver Litondo. Chadwick never quite transcends the trappings of a Sunday afternoon TV movie, but his tale is no less absorbing for the traditional approach he takes in telling it.

Kimani Maruge (Litondo) is 84 years old and wants more than anything to learn to read and write. Prompted to enroll by the government's announcement of free and universal education in 2003, Maruge has little idea of the trouble his quest for knowledge will bring him.

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Initially turned away by kindly teacher Mrs Obinchu (Harris), Maruge's insistent daily return to the schoolyard gates sees him eventually ushered into an already over-crowded class of children half his size and a fraction of his age. When word spreads about this unusual set-up, controversy inevitably follows, despite Obinchu's defence of Maruge as a positive role model and his own very literal citing of the government's advertisement of 'free schooling for all'. The media attention and threat from disapproving locals start to take their toll, leading to the student and his teacher having to re-assess the situation for their own sake as well as the children's.

There is plenty of intriguing historical backdrop to this story, and Chadwick manages to incorporate much of it without losing focus on the very personal subject at the film's centre. The cliched device of the flashback is actually well-employed here, as it offers such a brutal contrast to the present day scenes. Footage of the Mau Mau veteran witnessing atrocity and being tortured as a young man takes the film into some unexpectedly dark places, but these scenes really add to our understanding of the inner strength Maruge must have possessed, as well as the horrors he and his people must have endured.

The acting is solid across the board, with many excellent supporting performances from the locals, some of whom are obviously non-actors. Harris' character is initially a little too nice and naive to be believable, but as the gravity of her role in Maruge's situation dawns on her, the young Brit's performance grows more layered and involving. Litondo is a real find, bringing both humour and heart as well as the hard-earned resilience necessary for his part.

The scenes of him interacting with his young classmates have a lovely feel due to his worldliness next to their innocence, and many moments that could have been mawkish are made appealing by the respect he commands. The film is lustrously lensed, with the spectacular but unforgiving landscape encroaching on just about every shot. The set design also plays a big part in drawing us into the characters' world, whether it's the beyond basic but still functional school or the cramped shack that Maruge calls home.

There are several scenes that ring a little false; the reason for the now deceased Maruge's desire and determination to be educated is typically trite (the usual nonsense about letters he'd never been able to read), and the film takes on the tone of a history lesson during his climactic confrontation with the education authorities, an awkwardly didactic moment despite Litondo's tangible passion and natural grace. The soundtrack can be over-bearing at times, too, whether it is emphasizing joy or sadness. Overall though The First Grader is a worthwhile watch if a little worthy, an inspiring story that may not exactly be inspired film-making, but it doesn't really need to be.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2011
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The story of an 84-year-old Kenyan man's fight for education and equality.
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