The First Grader
Philip Concannon - Phil on Film
This is conventional, tick-the-boxes filmmaking and you can predict its narrative arc from frame one, but The First Grader is a solid crowd-pleaser nonetheless. It’s based on the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an 84 year-old who turned up at a local school one day when the new Kenyan government announced free education for all. Undeterred by the teachers’ insistence that the offer is aimed only at children, Maruge stubbornly turns up at the school gates every day, dressed in uniform and clutching his pad and pencil, until sympathetic teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) final relents and allows him to join her class. What follows is a fairly standard tale of inspirational uplift and the desire for education, but director Justin Chadwick also includes some surprisingly dark and violent scenes from Maruge’s freedom fighter past, which are jarring against the generally upbeat images of happy African kids running around in slow motion. The First Grader certainly looks smart thanks to Rob Hardy’s strong cinematography, but the film is really grounded by its two leads. Naomie Harris gives a sensitive and appealing performance, while Oliver Litondo brings a rheumy-eyed dignity to the role of this unlikely hero.