Thanks to the invention and acceptance of sign language, deafness is not a debilitating affliction.
As physical limitations go, those who cannot hear have quite a few methods to conquer communication: reading lips, writing notes, using sign language and in quite a few cases, actually speaking. Being deaf or hard of hearing alone can’t stop a determined person from achieving any goal a hearing person would have. In Children Of A Lesser God, a hearing, but sign-fluent, William Hurt takes up residence at a school for the deaf as a communications teacher; throughout the film, scenes show him attempting to teach his students to communicate, not only with each other, but also with hearing people, too. His goals are surface-valiant and his methods delightfully unconventional. But when he meets Marlee Matlin, a beautiful, deaf custodian at the school, who signs whip-smart sass and hides a dormant intelligence, the audience gets a taste of emotional physics. It makes for compelling drama.
Nested within the drama lies the main conflict in Children Of A Lesser God. It’s Netwon’s First Law wrapped into a different mode:
Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it
While Hurt compels Matlin to speak, she just won’t, and neither will budge. From their initial meeting, where Hurt reaches out to Matlin as a student, to the scattered erotic encounters that followed and even to the breaking point when lust turned to love, neither would concede an inch, let alone a mile. And instead of what either defines as progress, tension builds and builds creating that compelling story from the seeds of what could have been a big think piece on some topic or another.
The film’s oscar-worthiness shines as the school and the brewing love story play vehicle to the psychological effects of deafness. Sure, deaf people have adapted to their disability over several centuries through technological advancement and wider-spread awareness. No classical cure, though, exists to cure the mental constraint of being different, and the spectrum of the human psyche is vast and limitless on both ends. Children Of A Lesser God shows examples littered around this spectrum, from students who itch to communicate to those who are frightened to find their voice.
Children Of A Lesser God crafts smaller vignettes to help mirror everyday situations, instead of reaching for a larger, perhaps more exploitative message. To wit: director Rhonda Haines dispels a common misconception that intelligence and deafness are incompatible through natural situations instead of awkward and demeaning “lessons.” The film further delves into the capacity for love and sex among the physically challenged and the practical vs. the systemic in special education. The trick to Haines’ effectiveness is the emphasis on subtlety and misdirection, two qualities that earned Matlin a Best Actress win. By warping the drama through a “common” love story, the director will focus the attention onto two people, and not onto hearing vs. deaf.
Curiously, the same concept that allows Children Of A Lesser God to become great has also been its broadest target for criticism. Haines tells this story from the Hurt’s perspective, so it tells the story of how hard it is for a hearing man to communicate with a deaf woman, and thereby diminishing the hardship of having a disability. Also awkward, though still powerful, are scenes during which Hurt “translates” Matlin’s signs out loud, as if talking to himself. Roger Ebert, in his original 1986 review of the film says it best:
I suppose this sounds like the complaint of a crank, but I would have admired “Children of a Lesser God” more if some of its scenes had been played without the benefit of a soundtrack. If a story is about the battle of two people over the common ground on which they will communicate, it’s not fair to make the whole movie on the terms of only one of them.
This brings up another point: could this film have had the same success had it been subtitled? Even though the film is almost archetypically American, subtitles might have reclassified the film as foreign or reduced the viewership. Which format would do more good for the education about the psychology of deafness, or if that was even the point of the film? It would seem that through these production choices that Children Of A Lesser God is for a hearing audience, whether intended this way or not. Even this choice has an effect on the perceived mentality of the deaf audience writ large.
As one of the strongest years in the 1980s, the 59th Academy Awards largely split between comedy and drama, as Oliver Stone’s Platoon took home Best Picture and Best Director, perhaps deservedly so. Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters grabbed the supporting actor/actress awards as well as a Best Picture nomination. Children Of A Lesser God‘s subject matter is demanding and somewhat obtuse, outside of its niche as a love story, first, and as treatise on a disability, second, though I’m sure some parts of the deaf community would rather have had it this way.