The First Grader Movie Review
As the government introduces free education for all, 84-year-old Maruge (Litondo) shows up at primary school hoping to learn to read. Head teacher Jane (Harris) takes him in, knowing that she'll get in trouble with her boss (Kunene) but never suspecting that Maruge's story will ripple around the world.
Maruge is a Kikuyu who fought with the Mau Maus against British colonialism in the 1950s, when he was imprisoned and viciously tortured. And there are still old wounds between him and those he saw as collaborators.
While the grim past gives the film a dark undercurrent, the central story is warm and sentimental, as Maruge bonds with his much-younger fellow students and takes a stand for the importance of education. It's lovely to watch his infectious joy fill the school, as his yearning for education lights up even this boisterous classroom. Meanwhile, dark antagonism swirls outside the gates (and among a few disgruntled teachers), building a real sense of menace from a growing mob mentality.
Against this we see in flashbacks Maruge's life as a young man (Jawar), reliving the horrific violence he and his wife (Kjoki) suffered. These scenes of radicalised youth and terrified uniformed officials have real resonance in today's world, although the filmmakers slightly play this down in lieu of a positive message about perseverance and reconciliation. Still, the repeated shots of Maruge's face in sweaty, terrified close-up put us into his mind very effectively. So we really feel the injustice as he is unable to put the past behind him.
The performances are very strong across the board. Even if the characters aren't particularly complex, they are believable and engaging. Harris and Litondo are a terrific central double-act, and the children are simply wonderful on screen. So if the underlying nastiness boils over into a satisfying, sentimental final sequence, we don't mind too much. The filmmakers make their hard point, then leave us with a smile.