The First Grader

Critic rating:
MPAA rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama
Despite its heartwarming storyline, "The First Grader" remains a middle-of-the-road film.
Starring: Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Sam Feuer, Nick Reding, Oliver Litondo
Director: Justin Chadwick
Running time: 1:45
Release: Opened May 20, 2011

Editorial Review

Adult education takes a lifetime
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 20, 2011

The fact that “The First Grader” — a heartwarming film about a Kenyan farmer who goes to school for the first time at the age of 84 — is based on a true story doesn’t make it more powerful. It just makes it harder to state the obvious. It’s a middle-of-the-road film.

Who wouldn’t want to love a movie based on the tale, first told in the Los Angeles Times, of Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo)? The former Mau Mau freedom fighter, who along with his Kikuyo tribesmen struggled to throw off the yoke of British colonial rule in the 1950s, suddenly finds himself with a new battle in his old age. When the Kenyan government announced, in 2002, that it would offer free primary education for all, the illiterate Maruge took the government at its word and showed up for class at his rural village school in short pants and a makeshift uniform, clutching a pencil in one hand and a walking stick in the other.

Little did he know that he would set off debate and protests about the diversion of precious educational resources, not to mention the propriety of a grown man studying with little children, on his way to becoming an international celebrity and — quite literally — a poster boy for the power of learning. In 2005, the real-life Maruge was invited to address the United Nations on the importance of free public education.

As I said, it’s heartwarming.

But the film never really takes fire, despite frequent detours, via flashback, to the suffering Maruge endured a half-century earlier, during the Mau Mau uprising, and his subsequent imprisonment and torture at the hands of the British. It’s dramatic stuff, to be sure. And Maruge’s fight for his country’s independence nicely parallels his battle for the right to learn. Much of “The First Grader” concerns the efforts of Maruge’s teacher, Jane Obichu (Naomie Harris), to champion his cause despite harassment, bureaucratic obstacles and other threats.

But the movie, directed by Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and written by Ann Peacock (co-writer of “Nights in Rodanthe”), hews more closely to the conventions of melodrama than to anything resembling the contours of real life.

There’s lots of shouting, lots of cute, plucky kids and lots of furrowed brows and tortured memories.

The funny thing is the movie doesn’t feel like something you’ve never heard before — which the inspirational tale it’s based on actually is. Maruge is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest person to attend primary school. What it feels like is less a milestone than a movie you’ve seen too many times before.

Contains brief obscenity and images of torture and violence.