Set in a mountain village in Kenya, The First Grader tells the true story of an 84-year-old Mau Mau freedom fighter (Oliver Litondo) who survived imprisonment during British colonialism and now seeks to benefit from a nationwide declaration that an education is the right of all by joining a classroom of first graders so that he may now learn how to read and write.
Directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), The First Grader has all the ingredients for a rousing and inspirational arthouse film yet can't ever rise above Ann Peacock's paint-by-numbers script and ends up being simultaneously frustrating yet endlessly fascinating as Chadwick attempts to balance both the socio-political aspects of the story with the human interest angle that will undoubtedly play better for American audiences who will be unable for the most part to really grasp just how extraordinary this story is within its setting of Kenya.
There's a remarkably dramatic tale here, given the power of our central character's life experiences. Maruge, as played by Litondo, is a man who is both determined to learn even as he clings desperately to a past he can't forget. For him, reading is likely as much an act of rebellion as it is an academic pursuit and as his appearance in the classroom becomes known his increasing notoriety only exacerbates his difficulty in learning and fighting for his right to learn. As the teacher who admits him to the classroom then refuses to reverse her decision despite growing community opposition, Naomie Harris exudes both tenderness and fierce determination. When her refusal to reverse her decision leads to harassment, threats and a disrupted marriage, Harris's Jane Obinchu goes all Don Cheadle on us and becomes protector of that which is right for her nation.
While it is arguable that Peacock's script is mostly responsible for a surprising lack of feeling within The First Grader, it's hard not to wonder if Chadwick is equally responsible given that his last film, The Other Boleyn Girl, suffered from the very same issue. While it doesn't sink the film, which still has much to be admired, it does keep it from succeeding on a grander level.
The First Grader is beautifully photographed by Rob Hardy, who captures the beauty of the Kenyan landscape and gives the viewer a textured view that particularly works in the film's flashback sequences. The music by Alex Heffes largely companions the film's more dramatic story arc, yet does little to capture the wonder and heart that the film's title and trailer would indicate.
Those who have experienced Kenya or, for that matter, the African continent, will likely consider this a "must see" cinematic experience for its review of Kenyan history and capturing of the social lives of post-colonial Kenya. While The First Grader never quite becomes the film it is meant to be, the story alone makes it a film worth seeing.