The First Grader is being distributed by National Geographic Entertainment, and, as you might expect, it is gorgeous to behold. The arid Kenyan landscapes are stunningly photographed, and so are the images of bustling Nairobi. Extras have a way of breaking out into exuberant dances, and these sequences are lovely.
But the film lacks emotional depth. That's too bad, because there are the makings of an epic about Kenya's struggles under colonialism, and after it. The filmmakers don't have much use for nuance, though. Based on a true story, this is one of those inspirational films about a teacher who triumphs despite adversity, and it plays out about as you'd expect.
As the film begins, the Kenyan government has announced that all children will receive free education. Excited youngsters race for the classrooms. But one would-be student isn't a youngster. He is Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an 84-year-old farmer, and he wants to learn to read. He isn't allowed to register for first grade, but he shows up at the dusty schoolyard anyway, and the kindly teacher Jane (Naomie Harris) lets him stay.
Maruge is a veteran of the anti-British Mau Mau uprising that convulsed Kenya in the 1950s. In harrowing flashbacks, suspected rebels are rounded up, Maruge's wife and child are killed, and he is brutally tortured as a British officer calmly looks on.
The Kenyan government has sent Maruge a letter, and he wants to go to school so he can learn how to read it. But, we are told, the adult-education options are chaotic and insufficient. Jane fights to keep Maruge in her classroom, even as an imperious administrator insists he must go.
This is essentially a bureaucratic disagreement, but there are hints of old, roiling tensions. Tribal politics seep in, and cynical Kenyans seem to believe that everyone is bribing everyone else.
But at least as the film presents them, the stakes don't seem that great. I understand the symbolism of Maruge's wanting to read his letter, but if he just asked someone to read it to him, there would be no movie.
Another problem is that the filmmakers don't get a handle on the tone. The charming scenes of children smiling and dancing don't coexist easily with the horrifying brutality of the Mau Mau sequences. I can imagine a film that's artful about these contrasts, but The First Grader isn't it. The filmmakers might have provided more background on the uprising, but absent that, the flashbacks look like random violence.
The First Grader's saving grace is Naomie Harris, a beautiful, appealing performer. She is wonderful and warm in this role, so see the film for that reason. Later you can read a book about the Mau Mau uprising and get caught up.
This article has been edited to reflect the correct name of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.