“Children of a Lesser God” (1986) – Director Randa Hines’ film is not a typical love story in a couple of ways. Romance blossoms at a school, but it’s not between two teens, and thank God, a teacher and a student are not involved.
No, James Leeds (William Hurt) is a new teacher at a school for deaf students, and he meets Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), but she isn’t an instructor. Sarah is a former student, but this 20-something is the campus’ janitor.
Ms. Norman might tidy up the hallways and classrooms with a squeaky-clean shine, but her personal life is a mess, as she’s buried herself in anger and regret. Still, James and she frolic in a fling, and before you can say, “Class dismissed,” he is in love.
The movie’s hook is the discourse and dynamics between the couple, because James can hear, and Sarah cannot, so they sign throughout the picture. Looking back, subtitles would’ve worked much better to advance the conversations, as evidence by “CODA” (2021). Instead, James has to translate Sarah to the audience, and he does pretty darn flawlessly, but subtitles would’ve been a smoother and easier solution, especially for Hurt.
Still, Sarah’s baggage verses James’ eagerness to become serious offers substantial, engrossing tension, but communication in the practical sense – even though James can sign – demands our attention.
Matlin – who won the Best Actress Oscar – delivers a complex performance as Sarah struggles against her demons and sometimes mistakes James for one. Hurt is flat-out terrific here too, and James’ rapport with his students will bring A+ smiles.
“Children of a Lesser God” earned five Academy nominations in all, as Hurt and Piper Laurie – who plays Sarah’s semi-estranged mom – earned Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Thirty-six years later, the film doesn’t feel like a Best Picture contender, especially how quickly – out of plot convenience – that James and Sarah fall into a relationship and the eye-rolling synthesizer-heavy score, but it’s more than a worthy watch, especially for Matlin’s Oscar-winning work.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Randa Haines
Written by: Hesper Anderson and James Carrington
Starring: Marlee Matlin, William Hurt, Piper Laurie
Runtime: 119 minutes
Image credits: Paramount Pictures