A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Children of a Lesser God is a 1986 drama featuring a relationship between a hearing teacher at a school for the deaf and a deaf woman who works there. The film is based on a successful Broadway play by Mark Medoff that looks the difficulties of people from different worlds trying to share their lives. The secondary drama opens a window on views within the deaf community regarding the need to learn to vocalize to adopt to the hearing world as opposed to using sign language alone. A woman swims nude and is seen from behind. Adults have sex but no nudity is shown. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "ass," and "d--k." Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes.
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What's the story?
In CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, James (William Hurt) brings fun, humor, singing, and dancing to his 11th grade class at a deaf academy. Sarah (Marlee Matlin) is a surly housekeeper at the school, having graduated years before as one of its brightest students. Her anger is frequently on display, understandable as she was born deaf and first diagnosed as "retarded." Her father, unable to cope, left the family, and her estranged mom (Piper Laurie) resented Sarah for destroying the marriage. James tries to break through Sarah's pain, offering to help her learn to speak, which she resists. They fall in love and struggle as they each try to enter the other's world.
Is it any good?
Director Randa Haines lyrically tells a compelling story, nudging us to both understand the gift of hearing and also to consider the "gift" of deafness. The lively intelligence of the students at the deaf academy and the joy many seem to experience may not capture what life is like for those who can't afford the luxury of such an education, but Children of a Lesser God isn't a treatise on issues in the deaf world. The focus, however impractical, is on love and poetry and how people from different worlds can meet each other halfway if they try. Critics have viewed the film as an example of the wrong way to view deafness, as a disability to be "cured," and for omitting the views of a cohort of deaf people who don't want to be "mainstreamed." When Sarah does well at a gathering of hearing people, everyone praises James for how well she's doing, as if Sarah is a poodle only a hearing person could have trained so well.
William Hurt is magnetic here, pouring on the charm and winsomeness. He does so despite the fact that his job is also to keep us in the drama as he often speaks both halves of a dialogue, translating sign language to the audience. First-time screen actor Marlee Matlin is all the more impressive for standing up to Hurt's powerful performance. At 21 she is a riveting and fierce presence and exudes a sense of what it is to survive a painful past. Without words she gives us a picture of someone's inner life poignantly and vividly. That effort was rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar. The performances alone are worth the price of admission.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how you might feel about Children of a Lesser God if you were deaf. Does this portray the deaf community truthfully? In a positive light? Explain your answer.
The school's principal makes a distinction among those hard-of-hearing, those completely deaf, and those born deaf. How do you think those differences might affect how students learn to communicate?
Why do you think Sarah and James come into conflict? Do you think a romantic relationship can survive differences between the deaf and hearing worlds? Why or why not?
Critics have viewed the film as an example of the wrong way to view deafness, as a disability to be "cured," and for omitting the views of a cohort of deaf people who don't want to be "mainstreamed." How could you learn more about deaf culture?
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