Justin Chadwick's The First Grader is one of those films that seems too simple to be interesting, but turns out to be deceptively complex.
It also manages to be both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. With beautifully modulated performances by Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo, it's a movie that tells a true story, revealing itself little by little.
Litondo plays Kimani Maruge, an 84-year-old Kenyan who is a bloodied veteran of the long-ago Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, which preceded Kenyan independence from Great Britain, its former colonial overlord. Now an elderly man living a humble life in 2004, he hears a radio notice, saying that the new government is offering free education for all.
Maruge shows up at the overcrowded local school and announces that he wants to enroll so he can learn to read. The school's administrator, Jane Obinchu (played by Harris), is amused and sympathetic, but one of her teachers is openly hostile to the idea. So Maruge is first turned away because he lacks school supplies, then because he lacks a school uniform.
So he scavenges at local markets, does some sewing on his own -- and turns up again, this time with the proper supplies, wearing the requisite sweater and shorts. Jane is charmed, to the point that she enrolls him in the class.
As he unlocks the mysteries of letters and numbers, of phonics and mathematics, we gradually get a peek into his past: of the British murder of his wife and children, his life in a labor camp, his torture at the hands of the Brits and his fellow Kikuyu tribesmen, who collaborated with their oppressors.
Maruge's struggles are hardly in the past. His presence among a class of 6-year-olds is considered scandalous, arousing the anger of the children's parents. He also attracts the attention of the media -- first local, then international -- leading to more controversy and opposition to his presence. Will he be allowed to remain enrolled and accomplish his mission of personal literacy?
Chadwick tells this story in a straightforward fashion, using flashbacks to show Maruge's painful past. He also utilizes the inner strength of Oliver Litondo to capture the dignity and tenacity of an elderly man who refuses to be cowed and who is hungry to learn. Chadwick shot in the Rift Valley of Kenya to impart a sense of the isolation of the area and the strength of character needed, not only to pursue an education against huge odds, but to simply survive in an inhospitably equatorial environment.
The First Grader will move you, even as it reminds you of the worlds that reading can unlock. It's nice to see a movie that makes education seem like an important thing, given the anti-intellectualism that seems so rampant in the country today.
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