What makes Children of a Lesser God (1986) a compelling film is its superb acting and unique storyline. There are no stunning visuals or intricate shot designs—it’s purely a cinematic dissection of the age-old battle between love, acceptance, and individuality. It was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Screenplay (adapted from Mark Medoff’s stage play of the same name), Best Actress (winner Marlee Matlin), Best Actor (William Hurt), and Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie). Matlin’s win made Oscar history on two fronts: she was (and still is) the youngest actress to win Best Actress (21 years old) and she is the only deaf person to win an Oscar. Her performance, both raw and unflinching, is reason enough to make you watch.
Hurt plays a newly arrived teacher at a school for the deaf. His Jim Leeds is an educator who employs unusual teaching techniques to help his deaf students learn how to speak. Matlin’s character, Sarah Norman, is a former student of the school who works as a custodian. Strong-willed and emotionally guarded, Sarah refuses to learn how to speak, and this causes a few mild confrontations between them. Eventually they become romantically involved, which enables director Randa Haines to rip away any preconceived notions you may have had about deaf people being mild-mannered and chaste. In addition, you get a front row seat to the total deconstruction of what it means to be (or not) accepted by the one you love.
There have been many unusual love stories in the annals of cinematic history, but this one has to be right at the top. Here we have a deaf woman who uses sex as both a defense mechanism and as a way to emotionally connect. There’s one particular scene which is jarring in this respect. After having one of their many arguments, Sarah almost demands that they have sex. For some odd reason she thinks it will bring them closer together, but what it actually does is pulls them further apart—it’s the breaking point in their relationship. As anyone who has ever been in love knows, there is a balancing act between being one with another person while retaining your own personhood. How much, if any, are you willing to change for another person? In Sarah and Jim’s case, he just can’t accept that she won’t learn how to speak and she can’t accept that he wants her to change for him.
While Hurt gives one of his finest performances here, the movie belongs to Matlin. With no voice to verbally express her character’s emotions, she relies on facial expressions and body language. It’s always clear whether Sarah is bemused, frustrated, angry, or happy—the way in which she signs and the look on her face is all you need to see. Of course, the most powerful moment in the film comes when she finally allows Jim (and the audience) to hear her voice. Every time I hear it I am startled. The scene up to this point is already so emotionally charged that when that sound comes hurtling out the core of her being you are stunned. It is literally painful to hear—let alone to watch Matlin in such an agitated state of despair when she does it. This is one of the most emotionally raw moments I have ever seen captured on film.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of how the movie ends, but it didn’t infuriate me like some others (like Four Weddings and a Funeral). As such, I am willing to overlook this one qualm and reflect fondly on the other two-thirds of a superbly acted and written film.