The First Grader
One teachable moment: Lesson in dignity in ‘First Grader’
There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way into “The First Grader’’ that breaks your heart. Maruge (Oliver Litondo) has decided to take up the Kenyan government on its offer of free elementary education for all. Maruge’s 84. So he sits in a first-grade classroom with 50 children, almost as tall as any three of them put together, learning his ABCs.
Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) presides over the classroom. Visiting Maruge at home, she admires his wedding photograph. Your wife was beautiful, she tells him. “Yes,’’ Maruge says, uttering the syllable so simply it could be the sound of his heartbeat. It’s a moment of quiet, clear feeling unlike anything else in the movie.
“The First Grader’’ has three things going for it. First and foremost are Litondo’s and Harris’s performances. They don’t so much hold the screen as extend it, creating a kind of emotional 3-D. Their performances complement each other. He’s reserved and unyielding in his idealism; she’s expressive and unyielding in hers. Second is the window we’re offered on Kenya: from the quiet beauty of the landscape to glimpses of the beehive incongruities of Nairobi. Maruge isn’t the only one getting educated here. Finally, there’s the fact of the movie’s factuality. Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge was a real person (he died in 2009) who’s in Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest person to start primary school. The truth shall make you free? Maybe, maybe not. But it helps sustain a story that would be otherwise so implausible and overly sentimental.
Justin Chadwick previously directed “The Other Boleyn Girl’’ and a lot of British television, including most of the highly regarded 2005 BBC adaptation of Dickens’s “Bleak House.’’ Does the past have a particular appeal for him? He fills “The First Grader’’ with flashbacks to the ’50s, when Maruge fought as a Mau Mau against Kenya’s British rulers. We see several scenes of him being tortured. Another, which shows a British soldier blowing out a woman’s brains, looks deserving of an R rating to these not-so-tender eyes.
Jarring and reductive as those scenes are, they’re in some ways less gruesome than the efforts to work up dramatic tension back in the present. Life offers few experiences more miraculous than learning. Yet few miracles are harder to render visually. Shots of chalk on a blackboard and eager hands being raised will take you only so far. So we get the educational equivalent of opening up a play. Officials question Maruge’s getting a seat in the overcrowded classroom. Some parents resent Jane giving him any classroom time. When the media publicize Maruge’s story, local thugs try a shakedown. Jane’s unwillingness to abandon Maruge puts pressure on her long-distance marriage.
You marvel all the more at Litondo’s and Harris’s performances, considering how much claptrap Ann Peacock’s script requires them to put up with. They embrace the dignity that lies at the heart of Maruge’s story and affirm it. Litondo’s quiet “yes’’ in that scene at Maruge’s home is more than just a moving moment. It’s the emotion the movie’s planted in and too often obscures.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.