Children of a Lesser God [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #43]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #43.  Spoilers ahead.  

Children of a Lesser God

Directed by Randa Haines

Release Date:  October 3, 1986
My age then:  16 years old

What it is about:  James Leeds is a new speech teacher at a school for the deaf, where he meets and falls in love with angry former student named Sarah. They move in together, but their relationship comes under strain as Sarah comes to feel pushed to be something she is not. She moves out, which is heartbreaking for James, but after some time they reconcile.

Starring William Hurt as James Leeds and Marlee Matlin as Sarah Norman. Co-starring Piper Laurie as Sarah’s mother and Philip Bosco as James’ boss. One of James’ students is played by John F. Cleary, who I used to know when I was a kid, and played Little League baseball with (he was our best pitcher).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  This is a famous movie so I certainly had heard about it, and I was even more aware of it because of my former teammate being in it. I knew it was a romantic drama and that it was in some way about deafness.

Reality: There are things about Children of a Lesser God that work very well, and other things that don’t.

William Hurt is an actor I’ve always liked a lot. He’s good at playing quiet emotions and he brings a lot of subtlety to his characters. But with all that there’s something about James Leeds and the way he’s written that I just can’t get behind. The movie is just trying too hard to make him the unconventional, inspirational teacher. Perhaps this wasn’t as much of a cliche back in 1986 (before Dead Poet’s Society came our way), but watching him stroll into his classroom and stand on his head in order to make an impression just rings false.

There’s a self-interest to the way he focuses on Sarah which the film does eventually call out, but until then it’s hard to imagine why she falls for him, as so much of his behavior feels contrived and artificial (the fact that the script forces him to speak all the sign language out loud to himself doesn’t do him any favors in this regard). This is too bad because the part of this film that works really well is named Marlee Matlin.

Matlin was just 19 when she was doing this, her first film role, and as most would know is deaf in real life (indeed, all the deaf and hard of hearing characters were played by people who really had hearing impairments). She has only one spoken line in the whole movie which is almost is almost impossible to comprehend, but is nonetheless completely captivating in this film. She brings such such intensity and conviction through her eyes and in her signing that she is easily the movie’s most compelling character. Marlee Matlin became one of those people to win an Oscar for her first movie (indeed, for her first credited acting role) and it’s easy to see why.

Although I struggled with the movie for quite a bit, it did eventually pull me in, thanks in part to the diminished focus as it continued on James as a teacher, and to the way that it dives more deeply into his and Sarah’s conflicting philosophies. Where there initial getting together wasn’t completely believable, there break-up was, and by the end I could even understand why they get back together.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? It took me a long time but the movie eventually won me over. I liked Marlee Matlin, but if not for her I think the two-thirds runtime it took me to buy into its story would keep me from wholeheartedly recommending it.

See here for the Master List.

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