Children of a Lesser God (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Romance with deaf woman.

James (William Hurt) gets a job as an instructor at a school for the deaf. He’s brought in to try and teach the students to become less reliant on sign language and to speak more. It is there that he becomes infatuated with Sarah (Marlee Matlin) a 23-year old janitor who used to be a student there. She refuses to speak despite James’ efforts to get her to. Eventually they get into a relationship where James still insists that she must learn to speak, which creates a wedge between the two that could eventually drive them apart.

The film is based on the play of the same name by Mark Medoff, which in turn was based on the real-life experiences of deaf actress Phyllis Frelich  and her relationship with her husband Robert Steinberg. The play was quite successful and ran for 887 performances, but when it transitioned to film several changes were made most notably that in the play the Sarah character was a former student to James, but here that’s not the case, which to me didn’t make a lot of sense. It almost seemed like James became more obsessed with a janitor than his own students even though they suffered from the same fears of speaking as she did and the story could’ve been just as riveting had it stuck to his dealings with them, who otherwise end up getting seen only intermittently.

The whole romance angle comes off as forced especially since James blurts out the ‘I love you’ line before any relationship had even been established as they had  previously gone out to dinner as friends and not as a date. In many real-life situations when one partner says the ‘love’ statement too soon it can drive the other person away instead of bringing them closer and with Sarah being as defensive as she was that’s exactly what I think would’ve happened in this case.

It would’ve been better, especially since film is a visual medium, had we seen the relationship go the next level through actions and not words perhaps by having James impulsively jump into the pool that Sarah is swimming in and then have the two playfully splash each other before ending up with a passionate embrace and kiss, which would’ve hit-home the same point to the viewer, but without the melodramatic dialogue.

The constant use of the sign language that the two used to communicate with each other I liked, but got annoyed with the way James had to not only verbally repeat everything he said with his hands, but everything Sarah communicates with her hands as well. I would presume that a conversation done with sign language should be in silence, much like at the party that Sarah goes to with her deaf friends where everyone speaks with their hands while saying nothing with their mouths. I realize that it’s to the viewer’s benefit that James verbally ‘narrates’ what’s being said, but it comes-off as unrealistic and using subtitles during these segments would’ve been better.

Matlin’s Academy Award winning performance is excellent and proves that great acting isn’t just about conveying lines, which she, sans one sentence, doesn’t have, but also about facial expression which she does brilliantly. The scene where she goes swimming in an indoor pool and the viewer hears nothing but silence is excellent as well and helps us get inside the head of a deaf person and sense what their world is like. The story though goes on a bit too long and never really confirms if their relationship permanently works out long term, or not and for having to sit through so many of the couple’s ups-and-downs that’s one question that should’ve gotten answered.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 31, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 59 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Randa Haines

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

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