James Leeds (William Hurt) is an unconventional speech teacher who arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine to teach at a deaf school. There he meets a beautiful but stubborn janitor named Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), whose refusal to speak or learn to read lips baffles him. As the two embark on a romance, they must learn to speak the other’s language or face the fact that they’ll never be able to truly communicate.
Adapted from Mark Medoff’s Tony-winning play of the same name, Children of a Lesser God is an uneven movie that showed a great deal of promise before ultimately falling into some well-trodden cliches. A stellar cast and fascinating look into Deaf culture can’t save the movie from being problematic, dated, and more than a little trite. However, there’s a lot to examine within the film’s content.
The movie is essentially about tension between two people who speak different languages: James lives in the world of the hearing, and Sarah lives in a world of silence. At times, the two seem to be at war with one another: James wants Sarah to learn to read lips and to speak, and Sarah is adamant that James enter and accept her world of silence. This war doesn’t go very far, though, because the movie is only showing one side: James’s.
So, yes, the movie chooses to live in the world of the hearing, and it does so with an interesting strategy: subtitles are never used in the film. Instead of ever allowing viewers to experience what Sarah experiences, the film has James translate everything that she signs, narrating her experience with his own voice. At one point, he states, “I like to hear my own voice,” and it’s the line that helps pull off the premise. And at the same time, it makes the film about him, because it only features his point of view. Because of this, Sarah becomes the woman who is simply a stubborn object that must be conquered. She is the problem that must be fixed. And that might be the most frustrating thing about this movie, because it’s trying so hard to convince viewers that the opposite is happening.
There are some good things here. Both Hurt and Matlin are excellent in their roles. Matlin was only 21 when she made the film (it was her first) and more than holds her own against Hurt, who is convincing and powerful as the impassioned (if misguided) speech teacher. A supporting performance by Piper Laurie as Sarah’s mother is also very good (although it’s somewhat of a thankless role).
The cast can’t make up for the film’s overall predictability, though. The love story plays out exactly as viewers will expect it to, and although the chemistry between Matlin and Hurt is great (the two were involved in real life for a long time and had a very tumultuous relationship), they can’t save the movie from falling into every romantic drama trope there is.
Still worth a watch, if only for being one of the first movies to feature a deaf actress in a lead role. The movie’s available on Netflix Instant for a few more days and can be found on DVD.