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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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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