On the surface, Children of a Lesser God may look like a romantic drama about communication, and while it is that, it’s also something more. In telling the story of a gifted speech teacher (James, played by the recently departed William Hurt) at a school for the deaf trying to reach a former student, now an employee (Sarah, a wondrous Marlee Matlin), who refuses to learn how to speak, the film (directed by Randa Haines) slowly reveals itself as a riveting, emotional, and finally, universal examination of the human desire to connect.
Sarah’s deafness has no impact on her and James’ ability to understand each other’s words (she and James are fluent in sign language), but the mystery behind her refusal to learn to speak his language is rooted in psychology and trauma, not simple stubbornness (although Sarah is certainly full of that too). At first, James, so caught up and smitten by the school’s clearly brilliant woman who now serves as a custodian, accepts Sarah’s refusal to speak, but in the way men often want a woman to come to them, his frustration (however non-malicious) reveals itself in intimate moments—such as when James asks Sarah to say his name during sex (it must be noted that this is a very sexy movie), and Sarah recoils.
The answer as to why Sarah doesn’t want to learn to speak is less complicated than James’ inability to accept it. I speak your language, why won’t you learn mine? Why won’t you come to me?
In another movie, perhaps with a different lead actor, James could be seen as insufferable, but as played by Hurt, James’ desire to have Sarah come to him seems less ego-driven and more humane than it might be if almost any other actor were in the role. Children of a Lesser God was released in 1986–smack dab in the middle of an extraordinary run of performances by Hurt that began with 1980’s Altered States and closed out with The Doctor (also directed by Haines) in 1991. I’m not sure if Hurt was the best actor in the world over that stretch, but I will say that I wouldn’t argue with anyone who held that opinion.
Of course, the film only works if Hurt is well-matched by his co-lead, and Matlin (in her film debut) is positively remarkable. Matlin’s beauty is obvious and her face expressive, but even with those two virtues, it’s hard to take in the full measure of her performance. As Sarah, she is fierce, unapologetic, and sports a razor sharp wit that transcends not only whatever limitations one might think her disability could bind her to, but also of her counterpart. As terrific as Hurt is here (which is to say very), he is often the audience’s window into one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen on screen. I suspect that when Matlin won the Oscar for best actress for playing Sarah, a good number of voters may have felt warm or even virtuous for voting for a deaf actress. Whatever the Academy’s intentions, their choice has more than held up.
Part of what elevates Children of a Lesser God is the sheer complexity of the two main characters. In a more typical version of this movie, you might get the usual “inspiring teacher shows a wild(ish) young woman the way of the world and we all reach for the tissues during the heartwarming climax. From a high-level view, a film that fits the basic “romantic drama” description might seem like a slog (and to be honest, if you judged the film by its schmaltzy, string-laden trailer, you would probably believe that’s exactly what it is), but there are so many surprising delights to be found here.
The film is frequently quite funny. As when James teaches one of the students how to say “asshole,” and later in the movie, that same character shows how much his speech has grown by calling James a “fuck face” (one of my all time favorite pejoratives, by the way), and the pleasure that James takes in having this insult hurled at him is both hilarious and affecting. This is not a movie about pity or easy uplift. These are bright young people who have a challenge, not a lack of capacity.
When James tells Sarah that she is the most mysterious, angry, and beautiful person he has ever met, we absolutely believe him because Matlin gives off that vibe every second she is on screen. She’s a real person, not some sort of handicapped character you might have seen in an ‘80s network TV movie which comes to some boilerplate inspirational conclusion that if and when she sees it the man’s way, all will be right with the world. In fact, if anything, Children of a Lesser God asks Hurt’s character to take the bigger step forward in their tenuous love story.
As for the film’s director, I’ve never understood why Haines didn’t have a more substantial career. After Children, she made the aforementioned The Doctor (a forgotten gem), the charming Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, and the poorly received Dance With Me. Still you would think a director with a three out of four winning percentage would not get shut down by a single critical and commercial flop, but here we are decades later and Haines hasn’t directed a motion picture for theaters since 1998.
That’s a stunning thought, especially as you watch the masterfully directed final scene in the film. After breaking apart, Sarah and James come back together to consider trying again. The sequence is paced so that the awkwardness in the desire to sign the right words is deeply felt through every second.
In its own quiet way, the sequence reminded me of a line in E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End that has always stayed with me:
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
I’ve always believed that in every romantic relationship that has ever begun, there are probably only a handful of ways that a match can work, and a million reasons why it shouldn’t.
As Sarah tells James that she has learned that she “can be hurt, but not shrivel up and blow away,” James offers a middle ground, some place where they could meet “between silence and sound.” As they reach for each other, this moment does not proceed easily, but gingerly, with all the fragility and majesty that only hope can provide. Hope may be the best of things, but it is also the scariest, because it comes with the knowledge of all that is on the line, all that is to be gained, and all that could be lost. Their embrace is about more than desire, or even love. It is an act of faith, a choice to live in fragments no longer.