Monday, October 04, 2010

TIFF10 Review: The First Grader

The First Grader


No matter how hard you try to go into a film with an objective mind there are times when you go into a film with preconceived notions of how it will be. The First Grader is the perfect example of this. On the surface it seemed like it was going to be like so many “based on a true story tales”. A film with no real purpose other than to pull at the heart strings and hopefully snag a few awards along the way. Surprisingly though, Justin Chadwick’s latest feature manages to avoid many of the pitfall that usually plague its genre. As a result it connects with the viewers on a far deeper level than one would initially expect. This is why The First Grader ended up being runner–up to only The King’s Speech for the prestigious People’s Choice Award, the highest award that TIFF hands out.


At age 84, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) has experienced hardships that most could not even imagine. When the Kenyan government announces that they will offer free primary school for the first time, Maruge views it as an opportunity to fulfill his life-long goal of learning to read before he dies. Marugue’s initial attempts to register as a student at the school are met with scorn and ridicule. It is only when a teacher at the school, Jane (Naomie Harris) decides to take a chance on Maruge that he gets one step closer to being a reality. While Jane sees potential in Maruge, others in the community and the school board do not share her view. The idea of a grown man being allowed such close access to young children does not sit well with the greater population. As the debate over Maruge rages, and the international media takes notice, Maruge and Jane are determined to fight for what they believe is right...even if it may cost them their lives.


The First Grader is the type of film that slowly picks away at you before ultimately winning you over. The way some of the scenes are shot are similar to Hotel Rwanda, but that is where the comparison ends. The First Grader carves its own unique path by shining light on a dark era of Kenyan history that few people outside of Africa know much about. Justin Chadwick wisely delves into Maruge’s past via several well placed flashbacks. It is the horrors that Maruge endures, while fighting in the rebellion against the British, which gives The First Grader its substance. Chadwick does not shy away from showing the atrocities that Kenyans suffered at the hands of the British.

Part of the reason these scenes resonate so well is due to the measured performance that Oliver Musila Litondo brings to the role of Maruge. Litondo convincingly shows the quiet rage that fills Maruge as well as his desire to move forward. Naomie Harris finally gets a leading role that showcases her talents. Her work as Jane should hopefully open the door for more leading roles of note in the near future. It should also be noted that the children at Maruge’s school give surprisingly good performances considering that they are all first time actors. Instead of holding an open addition, Chadwick decided to uses all the kids that actually attended school in which the film was shot. Despite the fact that none of them had ever even seen a movie before, let alone television, they held their own against the seasoned actors.

While appearing simple on the surface, The First Grader offers a depth far greater than one would expect upon first glance.

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