SIFF Film Review – The First Grader

Based on a true story. No statement makes me less interested in seeing a film. There was a time where it seemed every movie coming out had to “based on a true story.” Never mind the fact that characters and storylines are changed as they make their way to the silver screen; it’s still based on a true story. Apparently audiences started growing as weary of this advertising trend as I did. Now it’s not enough to just be based on a true story. You have to be based on an amazing true story or an incredible true story. The First Grader, from director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), is based on an “inspirational” true story. Here’s an idea. How about a film tells me a good story, whether it’s based in reality or not, and stop trying to sell me with catchy adjectives.

The film tells the story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo, Sheena: Queen of the Jungle). Maruge is an 84-year-old man who has lived in Kenya his entire life. Like many of his generation, he never learned to read or write. When the Kenyan government begins to offer free education for the first time, Maruge sees this as a chance to finally live up to his potential. Unfortunately, he took the invitation for free education a bit too literally. When the government said “free education for all,” they meant all children. This doesn’t deter Maruge, who insists on doing everything an educator says a student needs to do to come to class. He buys shoes, makes himself a school uniform, and scrapes together some money for books.

Eventually, Maruge wins over the local first grade teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris, Tia Dalma from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). Jane allows him to study with her class. This leads to many obstacles for teacher and student. Other children in the class don’t like the attention Maruge is receiving, and school officials question Jane’s logic as an educator. When the media catches word of the 84-year-old first grader, they descend upon the village. This leads locals to believe that Jane is doing all of this to get money and attention from the news stations. Soon Maruge and Jane will have to work together to overcome their obstacles and make sure the audience leaves smiling.

That previous statement might seem a little callous, but The First Grader’s main reason for existing is to tell a happy story. We get all the usual beats. The awkward first encounters, the challenges the heroes overcome, the moment where the characters are ripped away from each other, and the ending where everyone smiles and hugs. The film literally ends with everyone smiling and hugging. The script from Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) seems to be most concerned with getting the facts of the story out. The easiest way to digest these facts is to filter them through the “feel good true story” formula. This makes it so the characters get short drift. Even though he’s in every scene, we don’t really feel a strong connection to Maruge. There’s never a moment where you understand his desire to go to school. It always feels as if he wants to go to school because this is a film about an old man who goes to school. Peacock should have focused more on the characters and who they are than including every little incident that happened in the real story.

That’s not to say the film is a sentimental bust. It may end on the cheesiest of notes, but damned if I didn’t feel happy when it got there. Director Justin Chadwick keeps things visually interesting throughout. His use of extremely shallow focus in close-ups and anti-frames in coverage keeps us engaged even as the screenplay goes through the motions. However, he is not immune to genre stereotypes. There are many flashbacks to Maruge’s tragic past as a Mau Mau freedom fighter that are shot in shaky slow motion with slightly blown out picture. Just like you’ve seen in nearly every tragic flashback of recent years. The actors also help keep the film afloat during the déjà vu moments. Litondo is a native of Kenya whose last screen credit was 20 years ago. The break in acting isn’t apparent onscreen. He sells us on Maruge’s struggle with writing and reading and the anger boiling inside of him. Harris is the most well known face in the cast, and she gives the best performance of the film. The sense of reality she gives the character of Jane makes the cheesy scenes (she’s involved in nearly all of them) go down smoother.

So what it all comes down to is whether or not The First Grader is an enjoyable time at the movies. The short answer? It is. The Seattle International Film Festival chose it as the opening film of its 2011 festival for a reason. It tells a story that many people wouldn’t see outside of a film festival, and it will make the audience smile—maybe even cry. The longer answer is that the film is a disappointment, because the idea of an 84-year-old man going back to school is more interesting than this film. Even though something is based on a true story, that doesn’t mean you have to adhere to the conventions of the “feel good movie.” If the filmmakers had taken more chances, branched out on the idea that was inspired by reality, they might’ve ended up with a better overall film. They could’ve left out the tragic flashbacks that overwhelm the first half of the film, given more depth to the characters, and not ended on such a cheesy note. Maybe it says something about the current state of cinema that a great true story has to be processed into something simple so that people will go and watch it.

Final Grade: C+


John is the co-host of The Macguffin Podcast, lover of 80s teen and horror films, and an independent filmmaker.

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