Yesterday, I viewed the next in 1986's lineup of Best Picture nominees...
Children of a Lesser God
Hesper Anderson and Mark Redoff
(based on the play by Redoff)
William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco
1 win, for Best Actress (Matlin)
James Leeds (Hurt) is the new speech teacher at a New England school for deaf children. While his unorthodox methods raise some eyebrows, he is very successful and much loved by his students. As he teaches them to speak (and even sing!), he finds himself smitten with the school's deaf janitor, Sarah Norman (Matlin). A former student herself, the bitter Sarah stubbornly refuses James' offers to help her speak, but does not refuse his romantic advances, albeit after some initial hesitation.
Children of a Lesser God could be a beautifully moving film if it weren't for one rather distracting flaw. James translates aloud everything Sarah signs as she is signing it. Sure, it conveniently allows those of us in the audience who do not know sign language (the majority, no doubt) to understand what she is saying, but it is such a phony dramatic device that it merely makes James seem fake. I understand that studios are reluctant to use subtitles for fear of audiences staying away from movies they have to read, but they really should have bitten the bullet in this instance. In fact, it may not even have required subtitles. Simply leaving the audience to infer Sarah's meaning from the context of James' side of the conversation would have been far less superficial.
It's a shame, really, because the story has the potential to be a lot more intimate. As it stands, though, the relationship between the two main characters feels somewhat distant due to James' insistent repetition. Consequently, the love story, which is otherwise personal and touching, seems a little rushed.
William Hurt puts in an admirable effort despite being given the short straw. His Oscar-nominated performance is especially commendable considering he is essentially speaking for two characters. He is slightly cheesy at times, but that is easily justified by his character's geeky sincerity. In her film debut, Marlee Matlin (pictured) delivers a heart-breakingly honest portrayal, earning her the Best Actress Oscar at the age of 21, which remains the record for the youngest winner in that category. The third acting citation for the film went to the richly deserving Piper Laurie for her tender performance as Sarah's estranged mother.
Despite my harshness in highlighting this film's main shortcoming, it remains an engaging film. I'm just disappointed because it could have been so much more.