Uplifting true stories have their own reason for being, although they not infrequently result in uplifting bland movies. “The First Grader,” which is about Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an 84-year-old Kenyan tribesman, is better than bland but never quite rises above the level of a pretty good TV movie of the week.
A Mau Mau freedom fighter who was tortured during the Kenyan war for independence, Maruge in 2002 seeks to take advantage of a Kenyan government decree providing free public education for all. Obsessively persistent, the illiterate Maruge finally gets accepted into a class of first-graders at a local school. The teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), has to fight off the controversy among parents and school officials that ensues. (There are only 50 desks for 200 students.)
Director Justin Chadwick filmed in Kenya, and his imagery, as well as the faces of the schoolchildren, and of Litondo, all of them nonactors, is far more expressive than the formulaic script. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for some disturbing violent content and brief nudity.)