The worst thing about "Children of a Lesser God" is its title, which sounds impressive but has no real meaning and is never explained in the film itself. I presume that the implication is that because handicapped people are often discriminated against in society they must be the creations of a lesser god rather than of a greater one. (Some very odd theology involved there). I preferred the German title, "Gottes Vergessene Kinder" ("God's Forgotten Children").
In form the film is a simple love story; boy meets girl, boy and girl (after an initial period of dislike) fall in love, girl leaves boy, boy and girl get back together again. The setting is a specialist school for the deaf in New Brunswick, Canada. The boy and girl involved are James Leeds, one of the teachers, and Sarah Norman, a former pupil who now works as a janitor at the school. Unlike some of the other pupils, who have some residual hearing, Sarah is profoundly deaf; she has never learnt to speak or to read lips, and relies on sign language as her only method of communication.
Sarah is obviously intelligent, and James cannot understand why she chooses to remain in such a humble job. He believes that if he can teach her to speak and to lip-read she will be able to compete in the hearing world. Sarah, however, does not want to be a part of that world, from which she feels isolated behind a wall of silence. The hearing world will not deal with her on her terms, so she will not deal with it on its terms. She knows she will never be able to speak as well as a hearing person, and her pride will not allow her to attempt anything unless she knows she will be able to do it well. The story tells of James's attempts to break through that wall of silence into Sarah's world, and also to overcome his own preconceptions about deaf people.
William Hurt- who had to learn sign language for his role- is very good as James, but the real star of the film, and the reason why I have given it such a high mark, is the beautiful Marlee Matlin. Marlee is herself deaf, and speaks only very briefly in the film. Virtually the whole of her performance is delivered in American Sign Language. Sign languages are sometimes wrongly thought of as being codes for spoken languages, with every sign corresponding to a spoken word, but this is not the case. According to those linguists who have studied them, they are fully-fledged languages in their own right, with their own vocabulary and complex rules of grammar. American Sign Language, for example, is quite different from, and not mutually intelligible with, British Sign Language, even though the two countries share a single spoken language.
The film does not use subtitles to translate Sarah's signs; instead, James provides a spoken interpretation for her and for some of the other students. I cannot understand American Sign Language, but it was obvious from watching Marlee's wonderfully fluent gestures that it is a language capable of conveying not only basic meanings but also feelings and emotions. Her performance is something unique in the history of the cinema; the only thing I can compare it to is Jodie Foster's equally remarkable performance in "Nell" from a few years later, in which she plays a young woman who is unable to speak English and can only speak an unknown, private, language. Marlee won an Oscar for this, her first film; she was, and remains, the youngest-ever winner of the "Best Actress" award.
The film itself was nominated for "Best Film" but did not win; 1986 was a good year in the cinema, and it was up against some very strong opposition. ("Platoon", which did win, is probably my least favourite of the five films that were nominated). It is, however, an excellent film; I have always been surprised that Randa Haines made so few films subsequently. 9/10