When the 2003 Kenyan government announces free education for all, Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) joins the throng of children at the gates of the village primary school, wildly enthusiastic about the prospect of literacy. He's motivated, focused, and determined to learn. And he's 84 years old.
School officials are first amused, then irritated by the old man's stubborn insistence that they find a place for him in the crowded classroom. But Maruge is not easily rebuffed, and when he shows up at the school in a makeshift version of the primary uniform, the head teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), resolves to let him join the First Grade.
Jane's decision is not an easy one. She and Maruge will face escalating opposition—first from school officials and local villagers who feel a coveted seat in the school is squandered on an elderly man, then from bureaucrats who fear Maruge will set a precedent for thousands of uneducated seniors, and eventually from local thugs who want in on the profits they imagine are being generated by Maruge's increasing notoriety. Complicating Maruge's own quest and his relationships with his fellow Kenyans are the ghosts of his past—he bears the physical and emotional scars of having been a prisoner of war in the Mau Mau uprising against British colonialism 50 years earlier.
The true, irrepressibly inspiring story of Maruge's somewhat complicated pursuit of education is the subject of The First Grader, a lovingly-crafted film that sometimes bogs down in its own earnest good intentions, but ultimately succeeds on the strength of its premise, the luminosity of its cast, and the visual charm of its setting.
Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) wisely insisted that the film be shot on location in a remote mountainous region in Kenya's Rift Valley province. Through the lens of director of photography Ron Hardy, the countryside seems almost enchanted, imbued in natural light, at once organic and otherworldly. Hardy shows a genius for composition, capturing action through windows and doors in some scenes, and using natural landmarks like trees or ramshackle fences to frame others.
As brilliantly as the land shines in this film, its inhabitants are even more enthralling. When it came to casting the youngsters who animate the story, Chadwick's quest for authenticity lead him to eschew hiring experienced child actors in favor of enlisting a Kenyan classroom of regular school kids. The children—many of whom had never seen a camera or television before—are wonderfully natural and so full of music and life they are alone worth the price of admission.
The film's two main adult leads are likewise engaging. The title character is played by Oliver Musila Litondo, a Kenyan who was a newscaster in the 1970s and has played small roles in pursuit of an acting career ever since. Litondo handles the role deftly, rendering Maruge with both the gravitas needed to explore his tragic past and the lightness required to play and sing and learn with children. The fact that he is not well known to Western audiences removes some of the "actor-ly" self-consciousness that might have plagued such a plumb part should a more famous actor have taken it on.
Teacher Jane is portrayed by Naomie Harris, whose career in British film, TV, and theatre has been punctuated by more famous turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Captured in cinematographer Hardy's light, Harris is an often-radiant presence in the movie. She reportedly spent two weeks simply teaching the children before filming began, and the result is a tangible mutual affection between teacher and students that is utterly winsome.
All these strengths make the films' shortcomings forgivable, but aggravating. As engaging as the source material, cast, and setting are, the screenplay does not always deliver all it could or should. Three issues plague the narrative. The first is a lack of character development, particularly as the individuals in this story relate to each other. The stress placed on Jane's marriage, for example, is meant to be a key plot point, but we see so little of Jane and her husband Charles together that there is minimal investment in their relationship. Likewise, although we understand Jane to be a revered master teacher, and the children certainly seem fond of her, we see no particular defining moment or exchange that a child would remember as a pivotal encounter. And though the narrative points us toward two or three children who have special circumstances and needs, our empathy is aroused and then simply dropped with no resolve or insight into specific situations.
A second issue with the screenplay has to do with the narrative arc of the story. Through flashbacks, The First Grader explores the torture and tragedy Maruge endured while fighting for freedom from British occupation in the 1950s. Although this is potent and poignant material, it is interjected into the story in a way that does not build to a satisfactory climax. The film settles into a pattern contrasting Maruge's current triumphs and travails with his horrific past, and it repeats this back-and-forth without a genuine crescendo in the story. The screenplay sabotages its own attempts to build to a climax, stealing its own thunder by having present-day characters telegraph key historic events before they're revealed in flashbacks. And the script milks the melodrama of the current situation in ways that don't always feel authentic.
A third related problem pertains to the dialogue, which is often admirably restrained and subtle, but seems to lose its way towards the end in the attempt to heighten drama. In a key confrontation scene with government officials, both sides seem to be uttering one theatrical cliché after another to the point where the exchange doesn't even really make sense.
Still, the power of Maruge's story is such that a sometimes-cumbersome screenplay can be seen arguably as simply another obstacle for the man's indomitable spirit to overcome. Overcome it does, and The First Grader succeeds in both educating and entertaining, in deeply enriching ways.
This film is in limited theaters, expanding to wider release in the weeks ahead.Discussion starters
- Was Jane right to allow Maruge to attend the school? Why or why not? Was Maruge right to insist on attending the school? Why or why not?
- What is our obligation to the elderly in our culture? What do you think it should be? How does respect (or lack of it) for the elderly look different in Kenya than in the U.S.?
- Is it right to use violence to overcome oppression? Why or why not?
- Maruge wanted to learn to read so that he could understand his letter. Once the letter had been read to him, do you think he still cared about education? Why?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The First Grader is rated PG-13 for some disturbing violent content and brief nudity. There are many scenes of torture and murder, and while these acts are not depicted overly graphically or gratuitously, the sense of peril is intense enough to make it inappropriate for children. Jane's detractors sometimes speak crudely and accuse her of infidelity in explicit language. Teens and up may enjoy the film, and the story offers much to discuss regarding Kenyan history, the importance of education, and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Photos © National Geographic Entertainment
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