The late Kimani Maruge should be cute. After all, he’s the current Guinness World Record holder for the oldest person to begin primary school. But Oliver Litondo, the former news anchor who plays him in the inevitable docudrama The First Grader, doesn’t bring that across. Maruge was 80 when, upon learning that Kenya’s new independence meant free schooling for everyone, he sauntered up to the school grounds to point out that “everyone” technically meant crotchedy geriatrics, too. And with Rudy -like resilience he was able to convince the powers-that-be to let him sit in a one-room shack filled with adorable moppets, learning how to hold pencils and, more importantly, how to read.
So far, so heart-warming. But Maruge bears in his soul and on his body the ugly past of modern Kenya. A survivor of British rule, he served with the Mau Maus, meaning he laid the groundwork for the independence that belatedly flourished. But that also means he served time and lost his family. As played by Litondo, his soft-spoken demeanor just barely masks seething anger and deep trauma. His performance is one of a man forever on the verge of explosion, a feeling that manifests itself but briefly when he begins punishing kids with a thwack from his walking stick. He could be capable of so much worse.
It’s a good thing The First Grader has Litondo, as otherwise it would be nothing more than a harmless weepie that grossly extends a slender tale. (Producers Sam Feuer and Richard “Not That One” Harris previously told Margue’s story in a short doc with the same name that only ran 12 minutes. Sounds about the right length.) It still basically is. Director Justin Chadwick spends the first half-hour overdosing on overwrought flashbacks—a typically inelegant segue begins with Maruge’s introduction to a pencil sharpener—but is ultimately uninterested in dwelling too long on his dark past. Litondo’s efforts aside, his character is ultimately meant to be pacified, his life squeezed into a cookie-cutter tribute-to-the-human-spirit template and sprinkled with a couple couldn’t-resist Obama-Kenya jokes. You know, for the nuts.