SIFF’s Opening Film The First Grader is Paved with Good Intentions, But…
I was the only SunBreaker to catch The First Grader, the film selected for tonight’s SIFF Opening Night Gala. It’s the kind of handsome, earnest, middlebrow movie seemingly tailormade for SIFF Opening Night status. If you’ve waited until the last minute, no worries, some tickets are still available!
The film tells the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, a Kenyan tribesman and former Mau Mau freedom fighter. Maruge became–at age 84–the oldest person to take advantage of Kenya’s offer for a free education, and he made international headlines when he got that education in a grade school in his Kenyan mountain village, learning to read and write alongside six-year olds.
A profoundly inspiring and provocative story lives within this source material, to be certain. In these devalued times–when we’re alternately clubbed over the head with a glut of technologically-delivered information, yet starved of any avenue for substantive thought from most of that extraneous data–the simple act of one old man opening his world with a pencil, paper, and the guidance of a teacher resonates deeply. And Maruge’s story encompasses thornier complexities than its central conceit: When her elderly charge became a media sensation, teacher Jane Obinchu’s motives fell under intense scrutiny, and Maruge’s status as a former warrior brought his very presence in a classroom amongst impressionable kids into question.
The movie’s shot with the kind of elegance and attention to detail you’d expect from the director of The Other Boleyn Girl, Justin Chadwick. He and his cinematographer Rob Hardy capture the Kenyan location–with its baked earth, jagged scrubs of dried grasses, and ramshackle wooden houses–evocatively. And in the title role, Oliver Litondo makes a compelling focal point for the film; the way Hardy’s camera traverses Litondo’s weathered and richly-textured features tells volumes that the dialogue doesn’t.
The script’s the rub here. I’m as much of a sucker for naked sentiment as the next mook, but characters mouth lines here that would inspire titters if you heard ‘em in a Lifetime Movie of the Week (do we really need a teacher who’s obviously doing their job for the kids to tell us, “I’m doing this for the kids”?). And the storyline’s laid out as broadly and obviously as the dialogue. The First Grader is a well-acted, incredibly beautiful-looking movie with its heart nobly on its sleeve…and its character and story points written at a grade-school level, with a blunt-tipped Magic Marker.