Kenya, 2004: the government has just announced that school is now free for everyone, and kids everywhere launch themselves at high speed—I’m not even joking—at the nearest classroom. Woefully undersupplied and with only 50 desks for the 200 kids there, one particular school is doing it tough. And one more student is determined to attend: 84-year-old Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), survivor of a brutal uprising fifty years earlier, desperate to get the education he never did, and learn to read so he can understand an important letter he has received in the mail.
The story of Maruge’s taken-from-real-life trials, from the past to the film’s present, are in turns uplifting and devastating, the whole film perfectly pitched for the M rating it has in Australia but far too heartbreaking and reality-based for me to really try and be funny about. The children, singing, getting up to shenanigans and being generally adorable, lighten the tone, as does Maruge himself, who is clearly a man of hope. This is further strengthened when the viewer is pulled into his past, an unfathomable place of violence and horror where your toes and your children will be taken without a thought. Witnessing these scenes is nothing short of horrible and I was openly weeping in the theatre during them. You probably will too, and you’ll know what I’m talking about when it happens. The movie tugs at heartstrings in small ways and large, from moments as dramatic as the spilling of blood or as poignant as watching Maruge’s desperate plight to get into the school in the first place—told he can’t be there without the proper uniform, he uses part of his meagre savings to buy pants and turns them into shorts himself, then turns up in black shoes, long striped socks, shorts, a shirt and a blue jumper. His spirit is what buoys the film; his, and his teacher’s. Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) is determined to see him get taught despite the risks both professional and physical she brings upon herself by doing so.
There are moments of obvious exposition at the start, with Maruge remembering his wife and children as he moves about his home, and Jane on the porch with her husband as he tries to convince her to live in Nairobi with him and make babies while she tells him clearly that she wants to help the school. Despite radio announcements about Maruge’s schooling and journalists from the likes of the BBC shoving microphones in his face, you never really get a feel for the scope of Maruge’s influence locally or worldwide on a personal level. Rumours start about people being angry but it’s unconvincing; none of the parents ever come up to the school and give any valid reason why, and one permanently sour-looking father does a lot of glaring and is dangerously proactive about it, then fades into the background instantly afterwards. These aren’t huge gripes, however; you know me, I can’t like anything without pointing at some things and barking, “But if I was director, that would be different! Also there would be smell-o-vision and more Danny Trejo.”
Something as moving and hopeful as The First Grader needs to be seen to be believed, and you should see it. There are virtually no white people, and, thank the movie gods, none who come to save the day; it passes the Bechdel Test; Litondo’s acting is so expressive that he can make you want to cry just by staring into the distance; the enthusiasm of the kids for learning is infectious; the history lesson unforgettable; the message one we can all stand by: Learn. And don’t be an asshole. (I’m paraphrasing.)
I give it seven out of the ten tissues you’ll have to take with you.