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The First Grader - Movie Review

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The First Grader - Movie Review

3 stars

Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader succeeds on far more levels than it fails. On its surface, it’s a fact-based narrative on the life of Kenyan Kimani Ng’ang’ a Maruge (known simply as Maruge), who tried to enroll in his country’s primary school educational system, but was denied… because he was 84 years old. More on that later.

But the film strives to succeed on a much more significant level as the universal story of one man’s endeavors to escape his past with hopes of enjoying a new beginning. This is the hard part of filmmaking. It’s one thing to succeed by constructing an interesting biopic, but it’s a whole other to successfully tie it all together with meaning, relevance and import. And this is where the film falls a bit short.

Upon learning that his country is offering free education for its citizens, Maruge (Oliver Litondo) shows up at the front gate of his local mountain top primary school eager to learn to read. He hopes to one day be able to understand the letter he recently received from the Kenyan government – even if it means facing the humiliation of sitting in a cramped classroom alongside a gaggle of toddlers and pre-adolescents.

Inspired by his passionate ambition, the school principal Jane Obinchu (Namoie Harris), relents to Maruge’s pleas by finding him a place to sit in the already over-crowded classroom. Together Jane and Maruge will not only fight off fierce opposition by parents who are none too pleased by the perceived unnecessary distraction, but also by school board officials and government bureaucrats unable to set aside past tribal allegiances. We learn through a series of particularly savage flashbacks that during the 1950s Maruge fought as a Mau Mau tribal native for his country’s freedom from brutal British colonial rule, eventually ending up being tortured in British detention camps.

As an emotionally charged true story about a particularly inspiring man, The First Grader is certainly worth seeing on its historical value alone. Maruge was a real person who is actually in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest person to start primary school. He also spoke to the United Nations on the importance of education shortly before his death in 2009. His personal journey and the inspiration to be gleaned from it are what make watching movies so much fun.

But the filmmakers – including screenwriter Ann Peacock who found huge success in 2005 with her The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe script – come up a bit short in their attempts to weave deeper layers into the fabric of Maruge’s story.

The whole thing has a strong made-for-TV feel with several melodramatic soundtrack swells and syrup-y group hugs.  It’s a fantastic story about the struggles of a courageous man who triumphs against the “system.” But many of the film’s lump-in-the-throat moments are trampled by Chadwick’s technical hand and Peacock’s choppy narrative.

The flashback sequences, meant to round out Maruge’s character and demonstrate a horrifically dark time in Kenya’s history, are instead distracting and bury several of the film’s more important subtexts.

But if a film can be saved by inspired performances, Litondo and Harris give it a go. They share a magical chemistry and tender attraction that so many actors spend an entire career searching for: he as a weary-eyed war veteran and wise old soul looking to reap the rewards of true freedom; she as the young and youthful spirit who can make that happen.

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The First Grader - Movie ReviewMPAA Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing violent content and brief nudity.
Director: Justin Chadwick
Writer
: Ann Peacock
Cast:
Naomie Harris; Sam Feuer; Tony Kgoroge    Oliver Litondo; Nick Reding; Vusi Kunene
Genre
: Drama| Biography
Memorable Movie Quote:
"The past is always present"
Tagline:
It's never too late to dream.
Distributor:
National Geographic Entertainment
Official Site:
www.thefirstgrader-themovie.com
Release Date: May 20, 2011 (limited)
Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available

Plot Synopsis: In a small, remote mountain top primary school in the Kenyan bush, hundreds of children are jostling for a chance for the free education newly promised by the Kenyan government. One new applicant causes astonishment when he knocks on the door of the school. He is Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an old Mau Mau veteran in his eighties, who is desperate to learn to read at this late stage of his life. He fought for the liberation of his country and now feels he must have the chance of an education so long denied - even if it means sitting in a classroom alongside six-year-olds.

Moved by his passionate plea, head teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), supports his struggle to gain admission and together they face fierce opposition from parents and officials who don’t want to waste a precious school place on such an old man.

Full of vitality and humour, the film explores the remarkable relationships Maruge builds with his classmates some eighty years his junior. Through Maruge’s journey, we are taken back to the shocking untold story of British colonial rule 50 years earlier where Maruge fought for the freedom of his country, eventually ending up in the extreme and harsh conditions of the British detention camps.

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