The First Grader
Biographical drama has good intentions, but lacks purpose
The importance of free education may be a perennial political hot potato, but films like Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader add little to the debate other than good intentions. Based on a true story, Chadwick’s film seeks to inspire and uplift, but succeeds only in neutering a story that could have more potent meanings.
Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) is an 85-year-old man who decides to attend school in his mountainous Kenyan homeland, taking up the government’s promise that education should be free for all. Unable to read and write, he’s incongruously forced to attend classes alongside six-year-olds, but presses on with the help of his sensitive teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris). The reasons for Maruge’s illiteracy are sketched in through flashbacks, as his refusal to bend to his British oppressors leads to his tragic separation from his wife and child.
The First Grader pulls few punches in terms of its negative portrayal of British colonialism, but swathes its politics in bland, feel-good emotion that waters down its criticism. Chadwick, a TV director who graduated to film via the dire The Other Boleyn Girl, never grasps at the angry heart of the story, and instead offers up a wan inspirational teacher drama with a climax lifted directly from Dead Poets Society.
Selected release from Fri 24 Jun.