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film review: the first grader

The First Grader tells the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), a man who fought for Kenyan independence in the days of British colonial rule. When the Kenyan government introduces free education, amongst the many chatty children that arrive at a local primary school to enrol is Maruge. He is now 84 years old and ready to learn to read so that he can finally move forward.

Maruge’s inclusion in the primary school doesn’t please the parents of other students or the superiors of head teacher Jane (Naomi Harris) and old wounds resurface for those who have known a different Kenya. Maruge makes an impression on the school children and seems to be on his way to reaching his goals, while Jane puts her job and her marriage on the line to ensure that he can stay.

Maruge’s life story is told using flashbacks, which are fast-paced and graphic. These seem jarring next to the quieter and more insightful present day storyline. Perhaps this was intentional to show the change in Maruge’s life and the change in Kenya, yet at times it is hard to keep up with the constantly switching moods. It almost feels as though the two stories need to be separated. These shifts become less plentiful towards the end and as Maruge begins to openly reflect on his past, the memories connect more clearly to the current story and are easier to digest.

The movie drags on a little in the middle, with one slow scene after another. As it begins to feel simply too long, the final few developments lift the pace and create a powerful ending. The reactions of Maruge and the school children to Jane’s forced departure show some of the best acting of the film and combined with a powerful soundtrack, they are sure to provoke emotion. Jane herself is a highlight throughout, due to Harris’ undeniable warmth and expressive face.

 The First Grader is not always enthralling and not always easy to watch, but the uplifting ending and powerful moments of progress for Maruge and those around him, make it all worth it.

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