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.
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.