The First Grader
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In the spring, when the weather starts getting warmer, most kids start squirming in their desks, counting down the days (the hours…the minutes…the seconds) until summer vacation. They can’t wait to get out of school. But director Justin Chadwick’s film The First Grader tells the story of a student who fights to get in.

In 1953, Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge (Oliver Litondo) sacrificed everything that mattered to him in the battle for Kenyan independence. Half a century later, he decided to fight for a different kind of freedom.

When the Kenyan government announces that everyone will be entitled to a free education, children flock to the local primary schools. So does 84-year-old Maruge, who’s determined to get the education he’s been promised and learn to read. Though he’s repeatedly turned away, he refuses to give up. And when he shows up one day in a school uniform, with the required books and pencils, head teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomi Harris) decides to let him in.

Though she’s already dealing with more than her fair share of challenges—like finding enough desks for her students—Teacher Jane decides to fight for Maruge. Her decision leads to resistance in her school, her village, the government, and even her marriage, but—like her elderly pupil—she refuses to give up.

Based on a remarkable true story, The First Grader is a moving and inspiring drama that will bring a smile to your face even as the tears well up in your eyes. Litondo’s eyes say it all; in them, you’ll see his character’s determination, his passion for life, and the pain that won’t go away. You’ll be moved by his strength and his resolve, by his eagerness to learn, and even by the way he reaches out to help his classmates. And from the moment Maruge hobbles up to the school gate wearing his hand-altered school uniform (complete with shorts and knee socks), you’ll have a lump in your throat that will stay there until the movie comes to an end.

The film is full of wonderful characters—from Litondo’s Maruge to Harris’s strong-willed Teacher Jane to the adorable children who learn to accept Maruge as a friend and classmate. Each one brings strength and even joy to the film.

Though most of the film focuses on Maruge’s educational pursuits (with the help of a compassionate teacher), it often flashes back to his memories of his family, his days as a freedom fighter, and his suffering at the hands of the British. This is where Chadwick lays it on a bit thick, going off-topic to build up even more drama. While you may learn more about the character—not to mention Kenyan history—from the frequent flashbacks, they get exhausting (and even a bit oppressive) after a while, distracting from the real story and making it feel heavier than it needs to be.

Still, The First Grader is a powerful—and beautiful—drama. Not only will it introduce you to a cast of strong, memorable characters, but it will also teach you a thing or two about the history and culture of Kenya in the process. So if this moving indie makes its way to a theater (or a video store) near you, check it out. Just be sure to have some tissues handy.

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