Wednesday, October 5, 2011

#425. Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Directed By: Randa Haines

Starring: William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie

Tag line: "Love has a language all of its own"

Trivia:  Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Sarah Norman. At 21 years and 218 days, she is the youngest winner of a Best Actress Oscar

Directed by Randa Haines, Children of a Lesser God dwells between silence and sound, merging the two into a beautiful story of romance and understanding. 

Teacher James Leeds (William Hurt) has just landed a lucrative job at a very prestigious school for the deaf. Against the wishes of the facility’s administrator, Dr. Franklin (Philip Bosco), Leeds introduces a few innovative teaching techniques, hoping to ignite a spark in his students while also preparing them for life on the outside. 

Sarah (Marlee Matlin), the custodian and a former student at the school, catches Leeds' eye, and before long he falls in love with her. But a terrible secret from Sarah's past has forced her to withdraw into an emotional shell, and she refuses to face what lies beyond the school's walls. 

Children of a Lesser God is carried by its two leads, both of whom bridge the gap between their characters in a most convincing way. Leeds believes his calling is to bring the hearing impaired a little closer to the world of sound, and uses some unorthodox methods to accomplish this. He urges his students to try speaking, and employs music in his classroom. He does experience a level of success, reaching students like Lydia (Allison Gompf), who at one point dances around the classroom with him to the tune of “Boomerang”. 

Sarah, however, is another matter; though her actions occasionally cross the line into downright rudeness, Leeds is impressed with Sarah’s tenacity, which he finds isn’t hampered in the least by her handicap. At first, Sarah wants nothing to do with the kind-hearted teacher, but Leeds doesn’t let up, and soon the two are falling in love. 

But as the relationship progresses, the teacher finds he is becoming the student, discovering that Sarah’s silence is anything but lonely for her. While out for dinner one evening, Sarah asks Leeds to dance. Once on the floor, she doesn’t so much dance as move to the vibrations, as if she senses them all around her. She’s not in rhythm with the music, but is in perfect rhythm with what she feels. Leeds can only stand back and watch, amazed by both her courage and comfort in the silence. It's a touching moment, and easily Matlin’s best scene in the film. 

Children of a Lesser God is a window into the world of the hearing impaired, and we relate to it on a level that is simultaneously observant and interactive. Through James Leeds, a passageway forms that transports his students from silence to sound. Through Sarah, another passage emerges, one in which Leeds himself travels into the silence, and in the end, it is difficult for him - and us - to tell the difference between the two.

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