The First Grader
2011, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Justin Chadwick. Starring Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgorge, Lwanda Jawar, Emily Njoki, Kamau Mbaya.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 27, 2011
The fine print exists for a reason: When the Kenyan government announced free primary education for all, one rural farmer took the proclamation at its word and showed up to learn alongside six-year-olds. Based on a true story, The First Grader's first grader in question is Kimani N'gan'ga Marugein, who is pushing 90 and is the Guinness World Record holder for the oldest pupil to start primary school. He's played as an old man by Litondo, solemnly expressive but also something of a sneaky delight in his school uniform shorts and kneesocks, and in flashback as a young man by Jawar, a forceful presence, even without much dialogue to work with. The flashback is significant in that Maruge's past – his time as a member of the Mau Mau, a rebel group that rose up against the colonialists after half a century of British occupation, and his subsequent years in detention – has everything to do with his reasons for wanting to learn to read and with the national reaction to Maruge. Some embrace him as a folk hero, others want to sweep any reminder of Mau Mau under the rug, while teacher Jane (28 Days Later's Harris, lovely and singsong) just wants him to learn his ABC’s so he can read the mysterious letter he keeps in a treasure chest. There are, to be sure, foregone conclusions in any kind of inspirational story of this ilk, but British filmmaker Justin Chadwick (who co-directed the exceptional BBC miniseries Bleak House) is weirdly keen on deflecting all drama. We have pretty much all the information we need within the first half-hour, which undercuts the supposedly climactic reveal of the contents of Maruge's letter and renders the torturous flashbacks unnecessary for narrative purposes. And not a little bit sadomasochistic, too – an ill fit for a PG-13 family film.