[Editor’s Note: This article is cross-posted at Parallax View.]
Opening night—rarely a strong point of SIFF—arrived with one of the least memorable films of recent memory—even more frustrating since it had already opened theatrically in New York to tepid reviews. The First Grader, the dramatized odyssey of an 84-year-old man who takes up the Kenyan’s government’s promise of universal education to learn to read, otherwise hits all the right notes for a Seattle event, and does so with thudding predictability. It’s an uplifting story of triumph over adversity in a third world setting, a true story with resonance in recent history and current events, and a feature built on waves of swelling music and seas of the adorable faces of children to trigger the audience’s nervous systems like a Pavlovian response. What could have been a resonant exploration of the tensions left over decades after the Mau-Mau rebellion and the lingering feelings of betrayal from both sides of the Kenyan people simply checks off the issues before setting up stock conflicts and easy-to-identify villains on the way to triumph. I understand the SIFF was seriously pursuing a far more substantial feature that, by fault of their own, fell through at the eleventh hour and I applaud their efforts on that count. But that doesn’t make The First Grader any less unimpressive.