The First Grader (National Geographic Entertainment, PG-13)

It’s too bad this film is so schematic, because Maruge’s story could have been used as a vehicle to explore modern Kenyan society and recent Kenyan history.

 

 

 

You’d have to have a heart of stone to not be inspired by the story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, an 84-year-old Kenyan who in 2002 decided to take advantage of the government’s offer of free education for all by enrolling in his local primary school. And that’s not all; the man was also a former Mau Mau who fought against the British colonists and helped bring about Kenyan independence.

Whether or not you will find The First Grader, a melodramatic film version of Maruge’s story, worth your time is another question altogether. It’s scooped up a number of audience choice awards from various festivals so it obviously connects with a lot of people, but I found it to be a fairly typical entry in the children’s-films-for-adults genre. And maybe that’s the key to The First Grader‘s success: the simplicity and predictability of a children’s story combined with beautiful cinematography and lots of moral uplift. This is a winning combination for people who consider themselves serious and sensitive but don’t care for films that require too much in the way of attention or thought.

As is typically the case with melodramas, The First Grader wastes no time with moral complexities or the subtleties of character development. When the stooped yet dignified Maruge (veteran Kenyan journalist and actor Oliver Litondo) appears at the gates of an overcrowded village school, he is greeted with scorn by Alfred (Alfred Munyua, in his film debut) while school principal Jane (British actor Naomie Harris) treats him with respect and courtesy. She also sends Maruge away but doesn’t mean him any ill will—it’s just that the tiny school is bursting at the seams with children and she can’t imagine trying to squeeze in an old man as well. You can already sense that Alfred will never change his attitude, while Jane will.

We will meet many more characters in this film, the moral values of each just as clearly defined, and there will be many more trials to be overcome as well. Maruge is frequently visited by memories of his imprisonment and torture by the British during the Mau Mau uprising. Parents object that the old man is taking up resources that should be spent on their children. The news media pounce on the story, and local toughs determine to rob Maruge of the money they believe the journalists must have paid him. And on and on, as The First Grader comes to resemble a game of whack-a-mole where each problem can be disposed of with one good whack, but others just keep popping up.

It’s too bad this film is so schematic, because Maruge’s story could have been used as a vehicle to explore modern Kenyan society and recent Kenyan history. The First Grader plays a bit at the latter with flashbacks to Maruge’s life as a Mau Mau, including some horrifying (yet beautifully lit and shot) scenes of torture that are the primary reason for its PG-13 rating. It also broaches a number of issues in contemporary Kenyan society—school overcrowding, misogyny, and marital infidelity (in a country with one of the highest HIV rates in the world the latter is more than an issue of hurt feelings), tribal rivalries, government corruption, unemployment, poverty—but treats them like items on a checklist that must be included in the film to give it a little grit but then abandoned lest they impede its progress toward the all-too-obvious conclusion.

I’d say the main problem is Ann Peacock’s screenplay, except that she’s written subtler work before and in this case may well have delivered to director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, also with a script by Peacock) exactly what he asked for. Be that as it may, the screenplay for The First Grader is more Nights in Rodanthe than A Lesson Before Dying (both with screenplays by Peacock), so consider yourself warned.

The First Grader is the kind of film that you really want to get behind, so I feel sort of bad pointing out its numerous flaws. As way of reparation, let me mention some good things about it. The First Grader was shot on location in Kenya and the cinematography by Rob Hardy will take your breath away, while the catchy soundtrack by Alex Heffes will have you searching your local CD shop (or the iTunes store) for more of the same. Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo both bring depth to roles that could easily have been turned into caricatures. The locals hired to play most of the supporting roles do a fine job and the children are charmers, of course.

If I were a more suspicious person I might think the creators had been following the American political scene, because The First Grader harps on a theme that is endemic to American culture and regularly exploited by our politicians. That would be the noble traditional values of the small town or village versus the evil corruption of the big city. If that’s the kind of simplistic dichotomy you like to see illustrated in your movies you’ll love The First Grader. On the other hand if you prefer a little subtlety and complexity in the telling of even the most inspiring story you’ll want to give it a miss. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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