Reel life: 'First Grader' a film of hope, darkness

Updated 5/20/2011 1:07 PM
  • Despite his age, Maruge (Oliver Litondo) wants to learn to read in "The First Grader."

    Despite his age, Maruge (Oliver Litondo) wants to learn to read in "The First Grader."

Reel Life mini-review: 'The First Grader'
Normally, when you think National Geographic, you think documentary.

Not this time.

"The First Grader" is Justin Chadwick's dramatic feature from National Geographic, but inspired by a true story of an elderly, illiterate man in Kenya who wants to learn to read. So he enrolls in a makeshift school as a first grader, setting off a political and academic firestorm.

Oliver Litondo plays Maruge, an 84-year-old man constantly turned away from school, until the young teacher Jane (Naomie Harris) sees his earnestness and lets him in her class. No big deal.

Until the news media find out.

The "After school Special" intro suddenly gives way to darker elements as flashbacks show us a youthful Maruge, a member of the Mau Mau, fighting against the white oppressors in his country.

There are scenes of torture and torment, sadness and loss. Chadwick's drama doesn't dwell on these, but lets us feel Maruge's outrage that after his sacrifices, his government won't allow him to learn so that he can read the letter that he's been carrying for a long, long time.

Litondo and Harris are exemplary in their roles. Chadwick tells a stirring, bluntly pro-education story with sincerity and restraint.

Trivia note: The American journalist is played by Sam Feuer, who directed the 2006 short doc titled "The First Grader: The True Story of Kimani N'gan'ga Margue."

"The First Grader" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Rated PG-13 for violence. 103 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life mini-review: 'Louder Than a Bomb'
I saw Greg Jacobs' and Jon Siskel's impressive doc "Louder Than a Bomb" at last month's Ebertfest in downstate Champaign. It follows four Chicago high school teams as they compete in an annual teen poetry-slam contest.

But what it's really about is the raw power of poetry to break down religious divisions, racial barriers and cultural walls, all while connecting students not just with other students, but with themselves.

Reminiscent of another great Chicago doc, "Hoop Dreams," "Louder Than a Bomb" profiles key students and their coaches at Oak Park/River Forest, Steinmetz, Whitney Young and Northside College Prep as the teams work through the contest.

The standouts among the standouts are Oak Park's Nova Venerable, whose poems about her special needs brother and distant dad emanate heart-wrenching honesty, and Northside's Adam Gottlieb, whose glib and charismatic wit is carried on a breathless wave of fire.

This is a movie ripe with hope that the next generation will be able to do just fine without the older one. Plus, its punchy finale practically forces you to stand up and applaud. That rarely happens in documentaries.

For the record, Siskel is the nephew of the late film critic Gene Siskel.

"Louder Than a Bomb" opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago. Not rated; for general audiences. 99 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ★

Thorry, but I missed it
Dan Hagen, a journalism instructor at Eastern Illinois University, diplomatically corrected an oversight in my rant last week against the plastic romance offered up by the hit movie "Thor." I wrote Thor's dad Odin went into a coma. Our Facebook conversation went this way:

Hagen: BTW, Odin must sleep the Odinsleep in order to remain immortal and powerful -- and to provide dramatic opportunity for melodramatic threats to Asgard to arise while Thor is battling villains on earth. It's a Stan Lee device.

Me: Ah, yes, the old Odinsleep device ... not clearly addressed in the movie ... unless it was discussed during the parts where I dozed off. Apparently, the Odinsleep doesn't stop the ravages of advancing age.

Hagen: The good parts happened while you slept the Giresleep.

Me: Unfortunately, the Giresleep doesn't stop the ravages of advancing age, either.

Tell everyone!
Join me and members of the Hoffman Estates Sister Cities Commission for a showing of the French thriller "Tell No One" at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Hoffman Estates Village Hall, 1900 Hassell Road, Hoffman Estates. It's about a man accused of killing his wife eight years ago who thinks he's seeing her -- quite alive. I'll lead a post-show discussion. Hey, free admission!

A 'Sad Cafe' opens
Northwest suburbanites are all over the production of the romance/action film "The Sad Cafe," showing once at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Portage Theatre, Chicago. Most of it was shot in a Crystal Lake cafe.

Director/writer Bennie Woodell hails from Antioch, and is a 2006 graduate of Chicago's Columbia College with a film/video degree. Arty Acosta of Grayslake plays a character called "Bane Thug." So does John Acosta of Mundelein. Walt Sloan of Lake Bluff plays "Phil."

The staff includes Mark Nadolski (sound design) of Arlington Heights, Tony Wash (special effects) of South Elgin, Andrew Janzen (executive producer/assistant director) of Schaumburg and Amy Furrow (art department) of Woodstock.

Tickets cost $10 and can be ordered at or at the theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

The hills are alive …
... with the sound of music, of course. Now, "Sound of Music Singalong" will be presented by the After Hours Film Society at 7 p.m. Monday at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. Prepare by warbling about your favorite things, like climbing every mountain. Tickets cost $15. Call (630) 534-4528 or go to

'One Lucky Elephant'
The documentary "One Lucky Elephant" doesn't open until June 9, but you can see it first at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Ogden 6 Theatre, 1227 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville. Tickets cost $5 and can be purchased at the box office and online at

The film tells about Flora, an orphaned African elephant adopted by circus producer David Balding, who put her in his circus. As she grew into adulthood, he realized that the circus was no place for Flora. She needed to be around other elephants. Ticket profits support Ahali Elephants, a non-profit organization dedicated to help Flora "retire" with other elephants in a special Tennessee compound.

Reel Shorts wants films
The Chicago International Reel Shorts Film Fest is accepting entries through Aug. 23. For details, go to

• Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!