Freedom isn’t free

The First Grader details an 84-year-old’s quest for literacy

Knowing nothing of The First Grader the cover-judgments run wild: This could be a kiddie-fodder tale of a baby-man re-enrolling in primary school. Maybe it’s a heartwarmer about Robin Williams a man who needs to comb his wrist to check the time developing progeria. Perhaps it’s actually a parents-first eat-your-broccoli cautionary tale about a legitimate first grader.

Before you cue up the sad trumpet however The First Grader only partially lives up to its title. Based on the true story of Kimani Maruge an 84-year-old Kenyan man who holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest student ever enrolled in primary this is truly a celebration of public education: All heart and heartbreak this is a drama that’ll make you cringe every time nine-year-old Aiden throws a tantrum in the grocery store confectionary aisle. (“I said Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups!” he’d scream. “Fuck you mom! You fucking bitch!”)

See Maruge isn’t Robin Williams or Adam Sandler. Played by Oliver Litondo a man with aching expressive eyes and an easy smile he’s a Kenyan peasant who spends his days tilling barren crops and entertaining his cat in a rustic worn-down shanty. When the Kenyan government announces free education for all for the first time ever he shows up at a local school with only a folded up newspaper article detailing the event — which he can’t read naturally. He’s updated solely via the radio.

Of course there are lumps. The drunken town elders mock him from front porches saying he’s one foot in the grave. He requires a school uniform pencils and a notebook — which he’s too poor to afford. Parents naturally wonder if their children — often cooped to five per desk — deserve the teacher’s full attention over an old man. Administrators question why exactly Maruge is insistent on joining the first grade.

But Maruge’s insistent. He shows up every day hobbling with a cane arguing that Kenyans were promised free education himself included. He slowly converts passionate teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) to his cause — he wants to read he says so he can decipher a decades-old letter addressed to him.

To be certain this is an implausible scenario but that built-in reviewer’s snark is quashed immediately. Through flashbacks — at first glance disorienting if sickening — more is revealed of Maruge’s life: Once a freedom fighter during the Mau Mau Uprising which successfully combatted British colonial rule in Kenya he’s experienced plenty of atrocities: He’s witnessed his family murdered with his own eyes. He was suspended from the ceiling and whipped mercilessly watching blood pool on the floor below. His gentle hobble too has its own grisly origins.

So while the adults-rediscovering-childhood narratives induce eye rolls Maruge’s story is nothing if not convincing. The war-vet parallel is omnipresent — that older generations fight for the privileges their younger counterparts enjoy — but never overwhelming. Ultimately this is an ode to education. For The First Grader learning is a privilege: Maruge’s quest for literacy is built on self-improvement and with that tool his possibilities are endless. His goal — reading that damn letter — is one that also applies to his classmates: Education is the tool that will help them achieve their own goals. Strangely empowering? You bet.

In retrospect then The First Grader might be an eat-your-broccoli narrative. But when told so convincingly — with the far-off concept of poverty visually realized in the dusty Saharan plains and tin-lined cramped schoolhouses — this isn’t a cautionary tale for children. It’s a coming-of-(old)-age victory for adults.

On second thought Aiden’s bitch mom should consider watching The First Grader as a mother-son activity.