Free universal education is the newly announced policy but, at a ramshackle primary school amid the dust of Kenya's Rift Valley, that welcome announcement bumps up against a hard reality: 200 eager students clamouring for seats at 50 wooden desks. With his nose pressed against the school gate, one of the students stands out from the rest. Desperate to learn to read and write, he's far more determined than the others; even hunched over his walking stick, he's also significantly taller and, it must be said, somewhat older too: Maruge is 84 years young.
So begins The First Grader, and you don't have to be literate to read the feel-good intentions. The setting may be distant Kenya but the theme is familiar Hollywood - another true-life classroom tale of sweet inspiration, where plucky teacher and beleaguered pupil combine to turn out a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Guided by Ann Peacock's script, British director Justin Chadwick definitely works hard to make good on that guarantee and, despite a few sizable missteps, he delivers. Expect to be pleased, if not completely uplifted; prepare to applaud, but no need to stand.
Perhaps Chadwick is guilty of over-working here. To his credit, he wants to dive down into the political and historic complexities of the story, while still riding the sentimental tide of emotional triumph. The ambition is laudable but the result is a film that sometimes gets caught in its own cross-currents, torn between the past and the present, between a wish to inform and a need to entertain.
Consider the plight of our octogenarian star and wannabe student. Initially, of course, Maruge (Oliver Litondo) is denied admission by a local board unwilling "to waste a seat on a man with one foot in the grave." Undeterred, he keeps showing up at the front door, demanding his right to an education, his spindly legs protruding from cut-off trousers trying to pass as a school uniform. Already, the old boy has won over our hearts, and soon the head teacher tumbles too. Defying the authorities, Jane (Naomie Harris) finds him a desk in the front row where, surrounded by a gaggle of exuberant six-year-olds (actual Kenyan school kids), Maruge and his pencil launch their assault on illiteracy, painstakingly tracing the contours of a lower case "a."
Inevitably, the higher-ups get wind of Jane's defiance, and what follows, at least in time present, is a long fight against bureaucratic rigidity. But wait. Cue the flashbacks to time past, and that much longer fight against British imperialism. Turns out the young Maruge was a Mau Mau rebel in the battle for independence. In his case, the price of freedom proved tragically steep - imprisonment, torture, and, horrifically, the murder of his wife and son right before his eyes.
This is potentially compelling, but truncated flashbacks are far too crude a mechanism for exploring not only the intricacies of that tumultuous period in Kenyan history but also its ongoing legacy - specifically, the still-simmering tribal tensions between those who fought the British and those who didn't. That's a whole other story, much greyer and more complicated than the basic sweet inspiration narrative at the centre of the picture.
Consequently, the script tends to simplify the background politics in order to promote the foreground entertainment, transforming Maruge into a double victim, simultaneously a forgotten freedom-fighter and a forsaken student. Sorry, but that's too heavy a symbolic burden for our hero to bear, and several scenes groan under the weight.
But others manage just fine, especially the classroom sequences where the two lead performers - Harris as the always enthusiastic woman who was born to teach, Litondo as the often cantankerous man who is destined to learn - crank up the buoyant quotient to put a wide smile on our faces. These are the moments when The First Grader comes alive and graduates into the stirring movie it promised to be. So stow your cynicism and give this lesson in continuing education the response it deserves - more than a polite clap, maybe even a sitting ovation.
The First Grader
- Directed by Justin Chadwick
- Written by Ann Peacock
- Starring Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo
- Classification: PG