May’s theme for Genre Grandeur is ‘Best Picture Nominated Movies that didn’t win’. As the Oscars have been around for more than fifty years, there were plenty of titles for me to choose from. But I knew the main-stream, bigger name films were going to get selected by other participants of Genre Grandeur. So, I decided to choose a movie that was not only off the beaten path, but also less talked about than other films. This is one of the reasons why I’m reviewing Children of a Lesser God. Eric Binford, from Diary of A Movie Maniac, is another reason why I chose to write about the 1986 project. While talking about non-preachy movies containing messages, I brought up the Hallmark Hall of Fame production, Sweet Nothing in My Ear. After Eric mentioned how he loves Marlee Matlin, I realized I have never reviewed any project from Marlee’s filmography. I have seen Sweet Nothing in My Ear, as well as a handful of Switched at Birth episodes. But I’ve never discussed the ABC Family show on 18 Cinema Lane and I didn’t review the 2008 Hallmark Hall of Fame film. It should also be noted how the last time I wrote about an ’80s movie was last September.
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: Since Marlee Matlin is one of the reasons why I chose to review Children of a Lesser God, I will talk about her performance first. While portraying Sarah, Marlee’s facial expressions and body language were expressive. They were also as fluid as her sign language. During an assembly, Sarah witnesses a performance from James’ students. At first, she appears content, not seeing any issue with the performance. But as the performance goes on, Sarah’s face progressively changes, appearing angry for reasons not yet revealed. In fact, Sarah becomes so upset by this performance, she ends up breaking a mirror. The strength of Marlee’s acting abilities not only allowed her to stand on her own, talent-wise, but also go toe-to-toe with William Hurt!
In Children of a Lesser God, William Hurt portrays James. The first thing I noticed about his acting performance was how he was able to balance the light-hearted and serious moments of the story! Toward the beginning of the film, James is explaining to his students why they should learn to speak. To demonstrate a likely scenario, James does a hand-stand, in an attempt to make his point. Later in the film, James learns more about Sarah. She explains how, in high school, her male peers would desire an intimate relationship with her, yet refuse to take the time to get to know her. During this conversation, James becomes frustrated over things he can’t change, such as Sarah’s past. Similar to what I said about Marlee’s performance, William was also expressive in his role. The expressive nature of his performance is what helped him maintain a consistent portrayal!
Several scenes show James interacting with the students in his speech class. These scenes are meant to serve as the more light-hearted moments of the film. One of the students in this class is Lydia. Portrayed by Allison Gompf, Lydia was not afraid to try new things. In fact, she was one of the first students to try speaking. What helped Allison and her character be memorable was her on-screen personality. It was so bubbly and up-beat, you can’t help but smile every time she appears on screen!
The on-screen chemistry: As I just mentioned, both Marlee and William gave solid performances individually. However, they also performed well together! The strength and expressiveness of their acting abilities worked in their favor and complimented one another. These aspects of their combined performance allowed them to showcase a relationship that felt realistic. One of my favorite scenes in Children of a Lesser God takes place when James wants to listen to one of his records. But shortly after he puts on a Bach record, he is overcome with guilt. James turns off the record, telling Sarah he can’t enjoy the music because she can’t hear it. A few moments later, Sarah puts the record back on, as she knows how much James enjoys the music. Through the acting, as well as the screenwriting, this scene is a great example of the sacrifices and compromises that can take place within a romantic relationship.
An introduction to deaf culture: Whenever I talk about a movie highlighting a specific culture/community, I try to remind my readers that the film in question is not the “end all, be all” when it comes to discussing that culture/community. This is the case when talking about Children of a Lesser God. The students in James’ speech class are their own individuals, displaying distinct styles and expressing unique perspectives. These students, including Sarah, have their reasons why they either want or don’t want to speak. At one point in the film, James’ students perform in their school’s assembly. Throughout this performance, they sing, dance, and sign while on stage. The joy expressed by these characters can be seen and felt. This scene shows one can experience joy when they’ve found a place to belong.
What I didn’t like about the film:
A confusing title: With a title like Children of a Lesser God, I’m going to safely assume “children” is referencing deaf people, with the title itself emphasizing how deaf people are just as important to society as hearing people. But in the movie, Sarah is the only deaf character the story revolves around. Yes, there are deaf characters featured throughout the film. However, these characters are shown as well-adjusted individuals who aren’t prejudiced or mistreated. As I mentioned before, Sarah recounts a situation that happened to her in high school. Sarah’s mother, portrayed by Piper Laurie, shares traumatic events Sarah experienced in her life. But all of these events happened prior to the film. With all this said, the title, Children of a Lesser God, seems confusing.
A limited presence of James’ students: As I said earlier in this review, the moments where James interacts with his students were meant to be the more light-hearted moments of the film. But throughout the movie, the presence of the students themselves were limited. I really liked the camaraderie between these characters, as it made their connection seem believable. Because of the student’s limited presence, it left few opportunities to get to know them. Sure, we learn about them through their experiences in James’ speech class. But compared to James and Sarah, I felt like I, as an audience member, only became familiar with James’ students. I kind of wish they had received their own subplot.
No appearances from Ruth: When Sarah’s mom is talking to James about Sarah’s past, she mentions her other daughter, Ruth. She also mentions how, in high school, Ruth’s male peers were more interested in Sarah. Despite Ruth getting brought up in the story, Sarah’s sister never appears in the film. Personally, I think this was a missed opportunity. It would have been interesting to hear the perspective of a sibling of someone with a disability. I also wanted to know how Ruth felt about what Sarah went through in high school. In the movie’s opening credits, I learned Children of a Lesser God was based on a Broadway play. I haven’t seen this play, so I don’t know if Ruth is a character that is meant to be in the story. But, like I said, it still feels like a missed opportunity.
My overall impression:
Children of a Lesser God is a character-driven movie. With these types of films, you need a cast that is so strong, it gives the audience a reason to stay invested in the overall story. That is exactly what this 1986 production achieved! Even though Children of a Lesser God primarily revolves around Sarah and James, the supporting cast was great to watch. Presenting an introduction to the deaf culture also helps. Though I liked this movie, there were some aspects of this project that could have been stronger. I wish James’ students had received their own subplot and Ruth had appeared in the story. But as I said in this review, Children of a Lesser God is based on a Broadway play. Therefore, I don’t know what was in the original source material. As I close this review, I’d like to say I can’t speak for whether Children of a Lesser God should have received the Best Picture award. That’s because I haven’t seen Platoon or the other films nominated in 1987.
Overall score: 7.7-7.8 out of 10
Have you seen Children of a Lesser God? Which movie do you think should have won Best Picture in 1987? Please let me know in the comment section below!
Have fun at the movies!