The First Grader is a film that comes from the sledgehammer and patching trowel school of filmmaking. Justin Chadwick’s latest film (his second following the similarly overblown The Other Boleyn Girl) likes to beat it’s audience down with improbably staged historical events so severely one would think they were watching a sports movie while liberally applying grandstanding speeches and stirring musical stings to hold it all together. The First Grader has the unenviable position of being a film that has a first third that is almost entirely expository in nature and spends it’s final two thirds trying to get as much emotion as possible out of the situation at hand. The blind will not need descriptive video services to understand the film and the deaf most certainly will not have to listen to it. I’m sure it will be overwrought even to them. This doesn’t make The First Grader a terrible film. It is merely a film that has it’s heart in the right place that was filmed and written by people who seem to want to pump an already emotional and complex story full of steroids.
Shortly after the country of Kenya grants the right for any child to attend public school for free, 84 year old Kimani Maruge (Oliver Litondo) decides to take advantage of the offer after realizing that the new right to education was put in place without any age restrictions. Maruge, a former fighter against the British during Kenya’s revolution currently living in one of the more rural and secluded areas of the country, has never learned how to read and wishes to understand a letter sent to him by the government on his own. Maruge causes a sensation in Kenya and around the world for several reasons other than his age. Kenya is still healing by this point from tribal rifts caused by the British and the school system has suddenly found itself flooded with more children than they can properly care for. Despite a lot of skepticism and mistrust from the community at large and from administration, a teacher named Jane (Naomie Harris) takes on Maruge as the 207th student in a class designed to only hold 50. Maruge draws a lot of media attention that is both positive and negative, the government uses his likeness to forward their own educational agenda, and even Jane might be using Maruge for less than philanthropic reasons. Maruge is also suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of being captured and tortured by the British and at times can be a bit much to handle around small children.
While the film is based on a true story there is something that feels patently untrue about everything that goes on and nothing about the film outside of the performances and the extremely well filmed settings feel organic (which could be because this is also partially credited as a National Geographic production). Kenya has a deeply rich and complex history that even documentaries can struggle to keep up with, and in order for audiences to understand and appreciate Maruge’s story, a lot of exposition is needed from the start. In many films this is a necessary evil, but instead of showing the audience exactly what happened, Chadwick and writer Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) open the film in a decidedly uncinematic fashion with about thirty minutes of people droning on about everything the audience needs to know. It isn’t complex stuff and it feels conveniently dumbed down for audiences, but it certainly isn’t as compelling to listen to as it would be to just show it. From there, the audience is treated to every cliche they know and love from every story about a wounded underdog ever made, but with about 50% more speeches and grandstanding than usual. Every character in the film gets their own speech about an “important topic” and as a result everyone gets their own chance to kill the momentum of the film. Much like what the students have to do on screen, The First Grader is an effective lesson in spelling since the film take great pains in spelling everything out for the audience.
The main draw for the film has to be the performances, especially from Oliver Lintondo as Marube. Lintondo disappears into his character so completely that if the movie had been made by better talents, an Academy Award would have been all but assured. It is the kind of great performance where one doesn’t see an actor on screen playing a role. Every mannerism that Lintondo uses as Marube suggests a fully realized and well thought out performance. Even when the film is at it’s most unbelievable (especially in the grating final third which strains incredulity to a great degree), Lintondo grounds the proceedings with an air of dignity and refinement that almost makes the film work based on his work alone. A great deal of credit also has to be given to Naomie Harris who plays Jane as equal parts keener and carer. Jane is a good natured, but conflicted person struggling both personally and professionally before Maruge even came into her life. Harris wonderfully shows Jane’s almost unwavering devotion to Maruge’s cause as something that is both helping and harming her. Together, Harris and Lintondo almost make this film worth a recommendation. There are also some great small supporting performances from Israel Makoe as Jane’s professional and highly skeptical teaching aide and Tony Kgoroge as Jane’s distant, yet supportive husband.
In the end, however, the pluses just don’t outweigh the minuses. It is easy to understand how the film was the runner-up to The King’s Speech for the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year(and it might be worth noting that the film has been recut since then) as it is a feel good film that will probably appeal to a wide range of audience members. It is a film seemingly made for people who really don’t get out and see a lot of movies. For those who see maybe only four or five films in a theatre in any given year and even less at home, The First Grader will probably seem like a surefire crowd pleaser. For those who see movies on a regular basis, however, there are things to like about it, but the trip to the film’s conclusion will feel considerably longer.
The First Grader opens in Toronto on May 20, Montreal on May 27, and Vancouver on June 3.
Cast: Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Sam Feuer
Directed by: Justin Chadwick
Top image: A scene from The First Grader. Courtesy Maple Pictures.