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a good drama, portrait of poverty, and mainstream taste of rap —Marty Mapes (review...)

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You are never too old to learn. It is never too late for justice. Respect your elders. These are some of the Hallmark sentiments you’ll discover in Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader.

A gratuitous radio DJ very helpfully tells us that school is now free for all Kenyans. Throngs of children run to school over the opening credits. Among them is a hobbling man of 84 years. Kimani (Oliver Litondo) shows up on the first day of school expecting to learn to read. He has a very important letter and he wants to read it for himself.

It's impossible not to root for Kimani -- if only the movie villains understood that
It’s impossible not to root for Kimani — if only the movie villains understood that

The First Grader has a dramatic conflict, of course. Obviously, school is for children; everybody knows that! An old man can’t possibly come to school with the children because... well... otherwise there wouldn’t be any drama! Also, one of the parents of a student glares at Kimani every time he passes. “My child fails at school,” so this movie villain thinks, “because the teacher is too distracted by Kimani .” A pretty teacher (Naomie Harris) is on Kimani’s side but feels powerless against the heartless bureaucrats who refuse to help Kimani, until at the dramatically ordained time, they don’t.

Cross-cut with this G-rated, heartwarming story is Kimani’s R-rated back story. We learn why he walks with such a severe limp, and where else his stubborn nature has come in handy. He fought hard against the very evil British colonizers in the 1950s (this is a BBC co-production, strangely enough). They kept him for a decade and tortured him to renounce his oath to the resistance, which he never did. At one point, we see a woman shot in the head.

You can guess whether Kimani is ultimately allowed to stay in the classroom. You may not be able to guess what’s in the letter, but it’s probably not much of a surprise to anyone who sees the movie.

As a film, The First Grader feels like a decently budgeted made-for-Biritsh-TV drama. There are no surprises and no artistry, just competent, straightforward filmmaking. At a festival with hundreds of other entries, it gets lost in the African dust.

  • Kathy: Not sure how you can say it ts lost in the African dust at festivals when it clearly won the hearts of everyone at Telluride and was runner-up to the People's Choice Awards in Toronto... I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion. September 24, 2010 reply
    • Marty Mapes: As I was doing my homework for this review, I found out what you mentioned above, that it's winning lots of good buzz. I really don't understand why, for the reasons I gave in my review. As you say, everyone is entitled to their opinion. September 24, 2010 reply
      • Peter: The movie is based on a true story. Kimani Maruge's - Guinness world record 'world's oldest student' September 29, 2010 reply
        • Marty Mapes: Thanks for the correction. IMDB says it's "Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge", so I'll go in and correct the story. October 27, 2010 reply
  • matty: marty mapes you don't know what you're talking about I'm afraid! just watched this at the london film festival and the audience absolutely loved it. yes it may be straightforward and a simple story, but it's uplifting, inspiring and a breath of fresh air compared to most films released. And "a woman is shot in the head" - it's his wife, and children, and that's what makes the story so powerful - especially as it's based on fact. Anyone who starts talking about G and R ratings i'm afraid shouldn't be reviewing..... (and it's Kimane Maruge not Kimage) October 27, 2010 reply
  • Marty Mapes: Well, I'm definitely in the minority on this one. October 27, 2010 reply