Children of a Lesser God (1986)

14 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When someone going to the movies sees a title like “Children of a Lesser God” on the marquee, I imagine just looking at the title turns them off, not knowing at all what the movie is about. And I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t feel the same way—I did feel the same way having heard the title a few times, not knowing what the film was about. Thankfully, after watching a vintage 1986 “Siskel & Ebert” two-thumbs-up review of the film, I was interested in what they were saying about the film so I was actually interested in the film itself.

“Children of a Lesser God”—how pretentious of a title could you get? That may seem like a downer title for a film, but the truth is, the actual film itself is a true delight.

“Children of a Lesser God” is a love story, and a wonderful one at that. It’s the story of a relationship that develops between a young woman who is deaf and a teacher determined to bring her out of her shell. Along the way, the teacher learns about love and about accepting his lover’s needs.

William Hurt plays the teacher, named James Leeds. He has an impressive resume and is welcome to teach at a school for the deaf, where he’ll teach his students to read lips and speak without using sign language. His methods are somewhat unusual but very effective, like, for example, when he stands on his head and can’t use his hands for sign language so he must speak, or when he uses timing and rhythms to teach music to the students.

On his first day at the school, a beautiful woman Sarah (Marlee Matlin) catches his eye. Sarah works at the school as a janitor, is very bright but also very stubborn, and is completely deaf. He wants to know more about her, and arranges for her to meet with him so he can teach her to speak. But Sarah couldn’t be less interested—she doesn’t believe she needs to learn how to speak. She’s accustomed to being deaf and using sign language all her life and doesn’t feel like she needs to belong in a hearing world. This brings more determination from James to bring Sarah out of her shell, but he also finds himself more and more attracted to her. “You’re the most mysterious, beautiful, angry woman I’ve ever met,” he finally tells her.

James and Sarah do go out on a date together and that leads to trust and respect for each other’s company, but the tension and determination is still there for James and he knows that Sarah will never break. But if she could have a meaningful relationship, would it matter?

A love story, especially one as complicated as this one, wouldn’t work unless there was chemistry amongst the leads. William Hurt and Marlee Matlin play characters who are constantly in a battle of wits, but mostly attracted to each other because of their own qualities. Hurt and Matlin work great together—they’re comfortable with each other and you can feel their chemistry on screen as their relationship continues.

The writing of “Children of a Lesser God” is just fabulous. There are many great moments in the story—not just with the relationship between James and Sarah, but with James and his students. The first scenes in which he teaches them to speak are freshly well-handled. There’s also a scene midway through the film in which they dance and sing to a pop song on Parent’s Day.

My favorite scene in the film comes after a loud party at James’ apartment with James’ students. When everything is finally quiet, James tells Sarah that he’s going to rest his hands and his eyes and just listen to 20 minutes of Bach. He says he hasn’t been able to listen to Bach since Sarah moved into his home, Sarah thinks he blames her, James says otherwise, Sarah says to go ahead, James turns on the music and listens for a moment…he can’t enjoy it. He sees Sarah sitting at a table, staring off into space and waiting. That’s when James thinks, how can he enjoy it if Sarah can’t enjoy it? And then Sarah asks him to “show” him the music like she “shows” him the sound of the ocean waves. He can’t do it. That’s a beautifully-written, wonderfully-acted scene that pretty much states the purpose of the entire relationship—if he truly loves her, he must welcome himself into her world of silence.

William Hurt has been good in movies before, mainly because he acts in roles that are written within his limitations—he’s not terribly exciting or expressive, but he’s mostly charismatic. This is his first role after his flamboyant Oscar-winning performance in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and in an arguably more demanding role, he’s just fine. Marlee Matlin, who really is deaf, has the more complicated role—using facial expressions, body language, and sign language to get her point across. In a silent role, she owns the screen. She’s beautiful, forceful, haunting, and all-around brilliant as Sarah—it’s an excellent performance. And like I said, both Hurt and Matlin have great chemistry together, and I cared very much about their characters. Another good performance comes from Piper Laurie as Sarah’s mother, who hasn’t seen her daughter in quite a long time and regrets that.

When all is said and done, James realizes that he should become part of Sarah’s world if they are together in love and learns a thing or two about respect for deafness and about respect for his lover. “Children of a Lesser God” is a wonderful love story with clever storytelling, great acting, and a subject that really should be taken into consideration. And don’t let that downer title fool you—“Children of a Lesser God” is great.

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