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The First Grader
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Reviewed on 2011-05-27
Received[2.5]  out of 4 stars
Kenyan Kimani Maruge (former TV news anchorman Oliver Litondo in his feature film debut) at age 84 in 2004 became the holder of the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to start primary school. He inspired a whole new generation of children to get an education.

His uplifting and heartwarming true story is directed by Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") from a screenplay written by Emmy Award winner Ann Peacock ("Nights in Rodanthe").

The movie opens with an enthusiastic radio disc jockey announcing that the new Kenyan government has proclaimed free education for all. A wild scramble of kids is shown running to enroll in the first grade of a small, remote, mountaintop school. The most unusual sight, trailing behind the youngsters, is Maruge, aided by a walking stick.

He tells head teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris from "28 Days Later") that he wants to learn to read. He is turned away for not having two pencils and an exercise notebook. On a second attempt, he is rebuffed for not wearing the appropriate school uniform.

The third time proves to be a charm when the determined old man is finally accepted by Jane into the overcrowded classroom inhabited by 6-year-olds.

Maruge is very attentive as the students learn numbers and the alphabet. At one point, he is chastised and told to sharpen his pencil, triggering painful memories of his past as a Mau Mau freedom fighter in the violent uprising against British colonial rule in the early 1950s.

After photographs taken of Maruge on the school playground end up in the newspaper, a furious school inspector tells Jane that Maruge must go to the adult learning center and orders her to oust him from the school premises.

Jane gets nothing accomplished when she pleads Maruge's case to the head of the education board in Nairobi. Maruge attends a class at the adult center, but finds it too noisy and doesn't get anything out of it. Maruge tells Jane that he must learn to read so that he can understand an important letter that he's received. Jane comes up with a solution by making Maruge her teaching assistant and gives him private lessons after class.

Maruge forms friendships with his young classmates, who at first regard him with curiosity. He regales them with stories about freedom and independence and leads them in patriotic songs.

The movie tells an important little-known story, putting an emphasis on the value of education. It shows that you are never too old to learn and how one good teacher can make all the difference.

It is remarkable that Chadwick pulls off this dramatic biopic with a cast largely made up of locals.

Litondo and Harris have great chemistry and form the heart of this straightforward narrative. They both show defiance, determination and true grit in bringing their characters to life. The disturbing flashbacks are necessary to show the heroic sacrifice Maruge made in liberating his country. A photo of the actual Maruge appears when the end credits start rolling.

This crowd-pleaser is sure to bring tears of joy and thanksgiving as the boundless human spirit reigns.

The movie premiered at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival. It was further honored by being an official selection at festivals in Toronto, London, Palm Springs, Miami and Seattle.

The movie is predominantly in English, but some of the dialogue is spoken in the Kikuyu tribal language with English subtitles. Opening at the Glenwood Arts and the Cinemark Palace at the Plaza for a limited engagement.

Review By:
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"


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