This Kenya-based drama has some potent themes and characters at its disposal, but is too contrived for its own good.
The First Grader stars Naomie Harris and Oliver Musila Litondo, and the year is a little over a decade ago. Physically deteriorating 84-year-old Maruge (Litondo, who once worked in a Kenyan news department) applies to take part in free government primary-school education offered by the government. He has never learned reading and writing and feels now is the time.
Justin Chadwick, who brought flashes of emotion in the period film The Other Boleyn Girl, deals with the effects of British colonialism over half a century ago on a man who went through a lot during his childhood and his early adulthood.
When not recalling this earlier turmoil, the modern events center on the issues of school headmaster, Jane (a solid Harris), finally acquiescing in the needs of the elderly man who appearance seems to have made an impression. Other teachers and parents look at him as an interloper and obstacle and express their dismay.
While the actors for the most part have a uniform convincing quality, as Litondo often can be a beacon of light in scenes, a sweet sentimentality takes over amid steadfastness and reconciliation. Even with some luminous lensing in a production that exceeds its constraints, the passion of intent from the filmmakers and performers isn't enough to overcome typical tact that The First Grader follows leaving it more pedestrian than poignant.
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