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CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  William Hurt, Marlee Matlin
Director:  Randa Haines
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  December 12, 2000

Film ***

When I was in high school, I got to see a live stage performance of Mark Medoff’s play, Children of a Lesser God.  I’ve never quite forgotten it, or the power, pain and anger that dripped from his words out of the mouths of some very talented actors.  It was a complex tale, at the heart of which was a simple man and a simple woman trying to reach each other through some lofty barriers.

The film version, directed by Randa Haines, was a worthy if somewhat softened version of that play, anchored by two terrific and likable lead actors in William Hurt and first timer Marlee Matlin.  So good was she, in fact, that she became the first ever woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for a debut performance.  And if you would dismiss her work as simply being a real life deaf woman playing a deaf woman, then you really need to see this film.

When James Leeds (Hurt), a teacher specializing in working with and teaching speech to hearing impaired kids shows up for his new assignment, he soon finds the kind of challenge he’d never dreamed of:  pretty, angry cleaning woman Sarah Norman (Matlin).  Sarah refused to learn to speak as a student of the school, and remains defiantly sheltered in her world of silence.  Leeds, who has shown remarkable success with difficult students, decides to make her an extracurricular project.

He first becomes her teacher, and she, a reluctant student, but naturally, they begin to fall in love.  But their love soon grows more complications than just the silence between them.  He speaks for her (both in their lives and as a technique for the audience to understand what she says), and in essence, takes away her ‘voice’, whom she adamantly never wanted to share with the hearing world.  Likewise, his continual prodding her into learning speech is a difficulty:  is it more for her sake, or more for him, who hadn’t seem to know failure with a student before?  Is it simply a matter of trying to help her, or does it come from a prejudiced notion from the hearing world that she has to adapt in order to fit in?

The chemistry between the two is terrific…Hurt learned signing in order to play the role of the “lesser god” to his “children”, and brings all sides of James to life.  And Matlin is simply stunning as Sarah.  Not until Holly Hunter in The Piano did an actress express so much without speaking a word.

Gone, as I mentioned, is a lot of the edge of the original play, replaced instead by softer ‘feel good’ numbers, as when Leeds’ class, using vibrations, sings and dances in a school production to “Boomerang”.  And the ending was polished up a bit.  Still, the film succeeds in capturing most of the emotion and the drama of the play, and boasts two terrific lead performances to solidify the film.

All in all, Children of a Lesser God doesn’t find all the stepping stones, but still manages to make it across the stream in good shape.  It’s definitely worth your time.

Video **1/2

This is not one of the better offerings from Paramount’s recent crop of releases.  Unlike, say, An Officer and a Gentleman, a film from the same time period, the print for Children of a Lesser God shows some signs of aging.  There is a bit more dirt and grain inherent in the picture, and slightly flatter colors.  Though brighter scenes render with more accuracy, darker scenes sometimes lose a lot of detail, and become a bit washed out.  I’ve often said that the early to mid 80’s produces some of the most problematic looking DVDs, possibly because they’re old enough to show wear and signs of deterioration, but not quite old enough to merit a full scale restoration.  Hence, a film from the 60’s like The Odd Couple looks better than this one.  Nothing about the image quality is a distraction, or takes away from the pleasure of watching the movie…it’s just not one of the better looking discs you’ll own.

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack is in the original mono presentation…not spectacular, but perfectly adequate, and free from noise…very important in a movie that relies on contrasting the worlds of sound and silence.  Dialogue is very clean and clearly rendered throughout.  No complaints.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Children of a Lesser God is a well acted, modestly constructed film with a terrific, emotional story to tell, and makes for an enjoyable movie watching experience.  It manages to be entertaining without either glorifying or victimizing the deaf people it portrays, which in itself, is a remarkable accomplishment.