The First Grader
is an earnest and well-intentioned if somewhat emotionally dry drama about one man's pursuit of redemption and an education: a Kenyan who sought to enroll in school to learn to read in his 80s. This "inspired by a true story" hits many of the expected importance-of-education grace notes, but never quite rises to lump-in-your-throat "inspiring."
In a prologue, we remember Kenya's bloody 1953 Mau Mau uprising, when some locals took up arms to end British colonial rule. But other locals sided with the British and the rebellion was crushed. Among those imprisoned was Maruge (Oliver Litondo), now a very old man. He lives on a tiny plot of land, planting meager crops and raising goats. He lives alone, save for his memories - of the family he lost, his time in prison, and the torture he endured there.
The illiterate Maruge has a letter and a plan to figure out how to read it. When the radio announcer reports a government promise of "free education for all," Maruge treks over to the new primary school. Jane (Naomie Harris), the head teacher, is puzzled, and touched. But she's also firm: "No." The school is already quite overcrowded. Another teacher, Alfred, is more blunt. They can't accept "an old man with one foot in the grave. Go home and rest in peace."
But Maruge won't be dissuaded. They need a birth certificate? He'll produce one. They require a school uniform? He buys cloth and sews one.
"I want to learn to read," he keeps saying. That wins over Jane. But that's when the trouble really begins. Maruge's enrollment brings back memories of the tribal divisions that the civil war exacerbated. Parents throw a fit. Elected officials play politics.
Maruge is also a problem student, given to caning kids who pick on their classmates. And then word of his enrollment gets out and he and the school become a sensation. More trouble. Everything and everyone seems to trigger a flashback in the old man, whose mind wanders back in lovely, sentimental close-ups.
Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and cinematographer Rob Hardy shoot the dry African highlands in a hazy, sensual glow. Harris, memorable as a sorceress in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, ably gets across the compassion, dedication, and stubbornness of the teacher forced to deal with an even more stubborn eightysomething student, and Litondo gives layers to the old man, who is alternately cranky and embittered, or an inspiring example to the kids.
But all of them struggle with a script that comes up short in terms of heart - Ann Peacock scripted the frosty romance Nights in Rodanthe - and defies logic. Why doesn't the teacher just tutor the guy? Why is he so oblivious to the chaos he causes?
It's easy to embrace the performances and the message, that "learning never ends until you've got soil in your ears." But The First Grader never graduates to the uplifting tale it sets out to be.
Directed by Justin Chadwick. With Oliver Litondo and Naomie Harris. Distributed by National Geographic Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (some disturbing violent content and brief nudity)
Playing at: Ritz Five