Children of a Lesser God is a film that functions on two levels. One, it is a film that first introduced the audience to and sought to teach audiences about deafness and what it was like to be a deaf person in a hearing society. In that vein, it was also one of the very first films to feature ASL prominently in nearly twenty-five years when it was released in 1986. Two, it’s a romance film that seeks to break boundaries by featuring a male hearing character (William Hurt) falling in love with a deaf woman (Marlee Matlin, in her first role). The film only manages to work well on one level, and even then, it doesn’t do a very good job of it.
Hollywood is notorious for not casting disabled roles with disabled actors, but, thankfully, Children of a Lesser God doesn’t have that problem. Sarah Norman (Matlin), the brilliant and enigmatic janitor at The Governor Kittridge School for the Deaf in New England, speaks exclusively in American Sign Language. The rest of the characters in the school, save for the headmaster and a smattering of others, are all comprised of hard of hearing and deaf actors. It is a feat exclusive to the film that I’m not sure we’ve seen since. So, it certainly is a groundbreaking film in that regard.
However, while the film does well with presenting deafness and the obstacles that come with it, it has a problem. In film theory, there is a lot of talk about the male gaze when it comes to the objectification of women. Children of a Lesser God does have a male gaze problem, because Hurt’s character, James, is the absolute worst. But, the most important problem it has is a hearing problem and it’s the most frustrating problem I’ve seen in a film in a very long time.
The aforementioned James Leeds comes to Governor Kittridge as an ex-hippie who is deemed unconventional by the inclusion of two offbeat jobs on his resume. Seriously. A speech pathologist, he’s of the opinion that deaf people should learn how to speak phonetically to get further ahead in the world. Because, you know, how else are deaf people going to live independently? (How did he get hired at this school? Because the headmaster is a condescending piece of work himself. That’s beside the point.)
His first day at school, he lays eyes on Sarah who is angrily signing harsh words at the cook and who is using her whole body to do so. This is the meet-cute of this couple. It’s neither cute nor a proper meeting. She catches his eye as she storms out of the cafeteria. She pauses, we are meant to infer that she’s intrigued, and then she keeps walking off. It should be the end of things, but that doesn’t make a film. James pursues her and constantly tries to get her to speak phonetically, controlling her, making choices for her until she rebels and leaves. But somehow, they get back together, and honestly, I just don’t get it.
Is it character development on Sarah’s part? Or is it just a way to get them back together and have a happy ending? I’m not sure, but either way, it all feels like the audience gets too much of James’ perspective and not enough of Sarah’s and that’s the problem.
I understand that the film’s creators and producers had to create a movie that appealed to the mass audience. That’s the goal of Hollywood regardless of whether it’s 1986 or 2020, but by placing the point of view of the movie solely in the eyes of James, the film’s director Randa Haines—the first woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar—had some difficulties to overcome that wasn’t executed well.
I will admit that as a member of the hearing community, I don’t know nearly enough about deaf culture and the emotions behind members of the deaf community. I don’t understand the fears of falling in love with a hearing person, the way communication between the two worlds is an obstacle that seems insurmountable, but if that’s what Mark Medoff, Children of a Lesser God’s writer, wanted to attempt to convey, he didn’t do a good job of it and neither did Haines. For instance, the film focuses entirely too closely on the hearing world. Everything is filtered through James’ perspective and it’s a warped perspective.
The audience gets a glimpse of what it’s like to be deaf—the silence, the isolation—in two scenes. One scene sees Sarah and James at a dinner party that is almost completely silent, the conversation taking place exclusively in ASL between a handful of prominent deaf people, one of whom Sarah admires. But even in the scene, we don’t get complete silence. There are still the sounds of plates clinking and silverware scraping across ceramic and glasses being sat down on wooden coffee tables. If Haines had made the decision to cut out those superfluous sounds so the audience would hear nothing, just a yawning expanse of quiet, it might have made a bigger yet subtle educational impact.
The second scene, which focuses on Sarah’s isolation, is when Sarah is swimming in the school’s pool. This is equal parts isolation and silence, even as James and Sarah make a romantic connection. That romantic connection is done under the water, so James has a glimpse of the silence water affords him and it’s a little of what Sarah hears on a day to day basis, but even then, Michael Convertino’s lush score gets in the way when all the audience should have heard was what James heard.
Overall, Children of a Lesser God has a sound problem for a film that is so focused on deafness. Also, instead of subtitles translating the ASL Sarah speaks, James translates every word for her. Just another notch in the James Leeds is a horrible person belt. Since James speaks for Sarah, I feel we get very little of Sarah’s characterization which is a shame because Sarah is such an interesting character. She is damaged. She is angry and she is hurting, and I feel like we don’t get the full weight of that because of James being the one who constantly speaks for her.
I will give Matlin props, though. She deserved every bit of that Academy Award she won in 1986 for this film. At nineteen she was giving a performance that most seasoned actors could only dream of creating. She acts with her entire body in a performance that is at once stunning and heartbreaking. Hurt, despite playing a controlling character, also gives a great performance. But it’s the overarching way these characters are treated within the confines of the film that make the film frustrating and not all that enjoyable.
However, it did introduce audiences to deafness in a way that had never been done before. It did introduce audiences to Marlee Matlin, which is great because she’s a phenomenal actor. It’s just that some things could have and should have been done differently to fully encompass what it was trying to do.