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The First Grader

Movies based on true stories are a normalcy. We see so many of them these days that it would be unusual to see them disappear. Most of them, however, do not match the inherent inspiration present in the actual events. They tend to flounder, relying too much on filmic techniques to draw out the emotion rather than simply letting the story do it itself. National Geographic’s latest release, The First Grader, is a prime example of this.

This true story follows an 84 year old Kenyan man by the name of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo). Just recently, the government declared “free education for all.” Hearing this, Maruge decides to enroll in primary school with the children in his village. Despite her initial reluctance, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) allows him to come in, seemingly inspired by his dedication to learn. All he wants is to know how to read, but the African people are none too happy with his inclusion in the school, which is already underfunded and forcing five children to every one desk. They believe the young ones need all the attention because, after all, they are Kenya’s future.

There’s no doubt in my mind that The First Grader’s intentions were good. It wanted to share the importance of learning. It wanted to show how it’s never too late to start and, as Maruge puts it in the film, you never stop learning until “there’s dirt in your ears.” It’s a wonderful and truthful message, one that is needed in a world that seems to be getting more apathetic and lazy. But the message crumbles under the weight of an overly dramatic and tonally inconsistent screenplay.

As the opening text of the film tells us, Maruge was a part of the Mau Mau Uprising and fought against the British Army in the 1950’s as they came onto their land and took everything he ever loved away from him, including his wife and child who were both killed in front of his eyes. Listening to Maruge detail the tragedy and seeing the sadness on his face is more than enough to convey the turmoil he went, and is still going, through. However, The First Grader constantly relies on unnecessary flashbacks, some literally within minutes of each other, to show the horrific events, which too often take emotional control away from the more than capable actors. The film doesn’t so much tell its story as it does force it down your throat.

This approach presents a lack of focus. It jumps back and forth so much, and at seemingly random times, that you never truly settle into either of the two stories, despite their intrinsic relationship. While much of this is simply due to the written presentation of the story, much of it also comes from the haphazard editing, which presents many continuity problems. An example of this comes from one sequence that begins at school, then cuts to a group of random people talking about Michelle Obama, then to Maruge sitting in a dark room, then to a flashback before finally winding up back at school. Too many of the scenes existing outside of the classroom could have been edited together in any way and the effect would be the same.

As you can tell, The First Grader is a messy movie and its lack of focus pervades its entirety. About halfway through, it switches its focus from Maruge in school to Obinchu dealing with the backlash from teaching him. Because of all these problems, the film feels disjointed, never fully able to connect its pieces together in a satisfying manner. Something that should be inspiring comes off as much less.

Even though you might not personally feel joy for the old man as he learns to read and write, you’ll see it in his face and no doubt think about how truly amazing his story is. It’s just a pity we don’t get to see it.

The First Grader receives 2/5