Seattle Film Fest 2011: “The First Grader,” Reviewed

Seattle Film Fest 2011: “The First Grader,” Reviewed (photo)

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The media is a double-edged sword in “The First Grader,” a feel-good film that’s surprisingly self-reflexive if one strays to think beyond the narrative director Justin Chadwick and writer Ann Peacock unfurl. Based on a true story, the film’s main character Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) simply wants an education after spending many of his 84 years in captivity under British colonial rule and when the Kenyan government announces they’ll offer free education to anyone who wants it, he naturally wants to start from scratch – in kindergarten, amongst the six and seven-year-olds who like him cannot read or write.

It’s a great story, one that attracts attention from around the world when word leaks from this small bush community that Maruge is learning how to draw sixes properly and helping his younger classmates who can’t. But all those human interest pieces add up and instead of the lionized image of Maruge that soon is plastered on billboards across the country, he and the courageous teacher/principal who helps him (Naomie Harris) are vilified within their village, suspected as having profited from his TV interviews and taking resources away from the children. In other words, things get complicated, as they do for “The First Grader” when its filmmakers, like all the reporters it depicts clamoring at the gates of the humble schoolhouse, try so hard to craft a heartwarming story that they risk missing the true one that’s taking shape at its own pace.

Full of triumphant music cues and brutal flashbacks to Maruge’s torture, “The First Grader” sees subtlety as a foreign concept, offering cinematic comfort food that’s not nearly heavy-handed enough to derail it from accomplishing its tearjerking end game, but a bit too on the nose at times to be taken completely seriously. Why it should be is mostly due to the fine performances from Litondo and Harris, in particular, who forge a relaxed chemistry in the central relationship between a student and teacher. In the world Chadwick’s created where nearly every other adult character might as well be twirling the end of a mustache as opponents of Maruge’s education, they take advantage of having the two most fully fleshed out roles and give the film the grace notes it lacks in other areas.

Still, there’s no denying that “The First Grader” has the capacity to be moving. Maruge’s valiant quest to read so he can finally read an important letter he’s kept long enough for the edges to be frayed screams of a concession being made for an uplifting narrative, but his ongoing struggle to stay out of the nation’s neglected adult education system rings unfortunately true. When the film’s climax arrives, it’s not only Maruge’s fate that’s at stake, but also the film’s as a fit secretary presumably in her thirties can’t catch up with an 80-year-old man hobbling down a long hallway with a cane. Nevermind where he’s going, but whether you believe the situation as it unfolds will hold a great deal of sway in if you believe “The First Grader” goes anywhere.

“The First Grader” is now open in limited release.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.