Children Of A Lesser God (1988)


Gotta give it this: Amazing title
Gotta give it this: Amazing title

Genre: Romance Drama

Starring: William Hurt (Smoke Broadcast News), Marlee Matlin (“The L Word”What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?)

Directed By: Randa Haines (Dance with Me)

Overview: When a speech teacher joins the faculty of a school for the deaf, he finds himself taken by the janitor, a woman who was once top of her class.

Feel free to click here to skip the spoiler bit at the beginning.

This paragraph is strictly for those who’ve seen the film, who never plan on seeing the film, or who don’t mind every hook, line and twister being ruined before they see it (you people are weird)...
Click here to skip the spoiler bit.

A speech teacher and an angry, deaf school janitor involve themselves in a romance, and like all honeymoons, the happiness is replaced with reality, turning into the “Now what?” minutia of everyday relationships. Entertaining as it is, Children of a Lesser God is eventually reduced to the same fight over and over: the baggage of insecurities and self-doubt of the deaf girl creates one-sided un-winnable arguments rooted in her  life-long inferiority complex. James can’t punch through it and she isn’t trying to let him in or even meet him half-way, her speech below a perfect distillation of the problem. Add the hovering dynamic of James as a speech teacher with a girlfriend who won’t be a student and it’s even more one-sided. The power of love won’t fix them until her deeper issues they barely touched the surface of are uprooted, which they won’t be. James’ and Sarah’s relationship is doomed to fail, but the end of the film implies that it won’t. To believe that the power of love will overcome their problems is a farce when we are proven time and again that it hasn’t as yet, that she won’t let it, and regardless of how great their sex is, that in the future, it's still not bound to. I’m reminded of how great an ending Klute had, how that couple knew their odds and didn’t mince hopeful emotions about it. The entire mood of the ending of Children of a Lesser God was fake, a happy tack-on that I didn’t buy for a minute.

How to ruin a Romantic Drama: Synchronized Deaf Comedy Musical Numbers
How to ruin a Romantic Drama: Synchronized Deaf Comedy Musical Numbers

When we begin Children of a Lesser God, it seems a tale of James the teacher facing the old guard, unwilling to accept the obvious shake ups James plans on making to the system. This entire scene, the entire set up by the teachers and staff is a time-consuming ruse, albeit one that drew me in. Fighting with authority may play a very minor role in Children of a Lesser God, but it’s an unnecessary distraction and nothing about what the film is actually about. Quickly enough, our speech teacher of the deaf sees the janitorial Sarah and her sassy, sexy ways. He introduces himself and works up to making a friendship and a romance, although that romantic chase is a scant twenty minutes of the production – two scenes really. The first is their first date. James takes Sarah to an Italian restaurant, where the red flags shoot right up, from questions like “what’s veal?” to falsely accusing the waiter of thinking she’s stupid because she’s deaf. As they finish eating, the music picks up and the couple starts dancing, Sarah writhing sensually in the middle of the floor, and James realizes that this woman is for him. I had a few issues here... maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but our Italian restaurants don’t have dance floors. Add the frumpy seniors dancing in the background and the moment where we see James fall head-over-heels for this woman becomes a twisted, surreal freak show. The second real romantic scene is the seduction in the pool, a decent moment where James' light-headed feelings of love are mirrored by the couple naked, un-breathing, underwater. In my opinion, this is where the story begins, and we start getting into the Drama of this Romantic Drama.

The problem with Children of a Lesser God is that it is human drama at its most honest - not at its most filmic: the script is full of unresolved emotional issues, the visuals are unimaginative, bland or outright distractingly awkward cinematography of everyday places, and Children of a Lesser God is full of dialogue that’s scripted but not polished. One of the things that impressed me quite a bit were the scenes which included James training deaf students in speaking skills. It seemed like real effort was put into making the students’ learning relevant, that through the deaf actors we could actually measure their improvements throughout the year thanks to James, but the director and production team ruin the entire effect of honest deaf-centric communication. Hollywood has always been afraid of including subtitles in film, and this is also true of Children of a Lesser God. Because there aren't subtitles for us to understand Sarah’s frequently frantic words, conversations have to sound like the dialogue of inanimate toys in a kids show, like Polka Dot Door: “What’s that, Humpty? Marlee Matlin, who won the Best Actress Oscar for this role is repeated constantly by James so he can exposit to the audience rather than subtitling her words and giving us a more natural script?” I expect deaf people watching this film would enjoy it as much as bilingual people hearing every conversation in a movie repeated in both languages. It must be infuriating, especially for those same deaf people who are entirely used to subtitles, but I digress, clearly Children of a Lesser God is a film for us, the majority, the hearing children of a greater God. All that to say that every opportunity the film had to show the differences of the deaf were cast away, where we could have been introduced us to the sub-cultural nuances of deaf society.

This sign... to connect... simple. But it means so much more when I do this. Now it means... to be joined in a relationship. Separate, but one. That's what I want. But you think for me, "think for Sarah". As though there were no "I." She will be with me, quit her job, learn how to play poker, leave Orin's party, learn how to speak. That's all you, not me. Until you let me be an "I," the way you are, you can never come inside my silence and know me. And I won't let myself know you. Until that time... we can't be like this...joined. - Sarah Norman

The Academy Awards clearly disagreed with me, but I didn’t particularly find either of our main actors to be a tour de force. There’s no chemistry. In fact there’s a dynamic of superiority held by speech teacher James since Sarah is ever a student who won’t learn, and the film, after everything, harps on this subject repeatedly. Also, I got embarrassed when Children of a Lesser God turned into a joke at the prom dance when the kids dressed and frolicked like in some Hecklefest tripe, to whose benefit, I have no idea.

I’m being particularly harsh on Children of a Lesser God, especially given that I recall being quite fond of the first half of the film, of James’ induction into the school, the discovery of its staff, students and love interest. Something happened later when I began distilling the world we were shown and I realized that Children of a Lesser God took a Lowest Common Denominator approach to making the film marketable instead of realistic.

Like most shots in Lesser God, this one shows epic displays of vast  grandeur.
Like most shots in Lesser God, this one shows epic displays of vast grandeur.

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 7 Script: 6 Plot: 6 Mood: 7

Overall Rating: 66% (Lesser Indeed)

All told I actually remember the film more fondly than my rating, and of course thanks to Children of a Lesser God, I have expanded my knowledge of sign language by two words. The F-word and beautiful, and I can string the two words in a sentence. 

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Dude. Dead on, and far deeper than I went. I never even considered the fact that the film doesn't subtitle her sign language, but you're exactly right. In a lot of ways, this completely marginalizes her--the speech you offer above from Sarah is exactly that point. And yet, the film does exactly that too her; it refuses to let her be herself on her own without the translation from him.

 That's a good goddam catch, sir.  

This film spawned a lot of discussion and that point came much later in my thought process... then it was glaring.

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