The fine print exists for a reason: When the Kenyan government announced free primary education for all, one rural farmer took the proclamation at its word and showed up to learn alongside 6-year-olds. Based on a true story, The First Grader's first grader in question is 84-year-old Kimani N'gan'ga Marugein. He's played as an old man by Oliver Litondo, solemnly expressive but also something of a sneaky delight in his school uniform shorts and knee-socks, and in flashback as a young man by Lwander Jawar, a forceful presence, even without much dialogue to work with.
The flashback is significant in that Maruge's past — his time as a member of the Mau Mau, a rebel group that rose up against the colonialists after half a century of British occupation and his subsequent years in detention — has everything to do with his reasons for wanting to learn to read and with the national reaction to Maruge. Some embrace him as a folk hero, others want to sweep any reminder of Mau Mau under the rug, while teacher Jane (Naomie Harris) just wants him to learn his ABCs so he can read the mysterious letter he keeps in a treasure chest.
There are, to be sure, foregone conclusions in any kind of
inspirational story of this ilk, but British filmmaker Justin
Chadwick (who co-directed the exceptional BBC miniseries Bleak
House) is weirdly keen on deflecting all
drama. We have pretty much all the information we need within the
first half-hour, which undercuts the supposedly climactic reveal of
the contents of Maruge's letter and renders the torturous flashbacks
unnecessary for narrative purposes. And not a little bit
sadomasochistic, too — an ill fit for a PG-13 family film. Grade: C-plus
Opens Friday at AMC Newport.