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Movie Review: The First Grader

'First Grader' nears the head of its class
The First Grader
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 105 min
MPAA rating: PG-13
Release Date: 2011-05-13
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

I have never seen elementary schoolers more passionate about education than the ones I met at a school in rural Kenya, not far from the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The walls of the one-room schoolhouse were made of wood, a material so precious in that land that most huts are built of compacted earth. The floor consisted of loose, large stones, worn smooth by bare feet. But the bright-eyed kids, each clutching a precious pencil and notebook, leapt to their feet to speak a greeting in Masai-accented English.

I thought of that schoolhouse as I watched “The First Grader.” This moving story takes place in Kenya, shortly after the government announced in 2004 that free education would be available to all who sought it. The new students in this film were as enthused about learning as the ones I met, and they had the same twinkles in their eyes – even the rheumy red eyes of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo).

The goat herder decides that he, too, would like to learn to read at the age of 84. This seems a reasonable request to his teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris). But it stirs controversy among politicians who think he’s mocking the system, journalists who sniff out a political hot potato, and thugs who believe the journalists pay Maruge and Obinchu for the stories they keep printing.

This narrative, based on a real event, would have been gently touching had it stopped here. But director Justin Chadwick (who last did the vastly different “The Other Boleyn Girl”) and writer Ann Peacock (who did the vastly different “Nights in Rodanthe”) complicate things.

They give Maruge a past full of bitter memories: He spent years in prison as one of the Mau Maus, rebels who fought a bloody war for independence before the British granted it in 1963. His wife and children were abducted and slain; he and his fellows were tortured, one of them with the very kind of sharpened pencil Maruge now uses to practice writing numbers.

The letter he so desperately wants to read – one with a government seal at the top – is an official document that may bode well or ill. (He’s too proud to let someone read it to him.) So his demands don’t come from an abstract desire to learn: If the country teaches him, it will be paying him back for years of suffering and service by improving his life.

The film gets a bit far-fetched when callers menace Obinchu and try to ruin her marriage with ugly gossip. (Why should a literate Maruge threaten anyone?) But Maruge and Obinchu never lose their senses of humor or conviction, and Litondo and Harris (who’s best known as the voodoo priestess in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) are ideally cast.

A note during the end credits says the real Maruge came to the United States shortly before he died to address the United Nations. He spoke about the value of treating all aspiring students as individuals and helping people of any age to be lifelong learners. The film brings that uplifting message home, and it’s one we can never hear too often.

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5/26/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

An 84-year-old man tries to take advantage of Kenya’s offer to educate anyone free of charge but runs into obstacles.

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