Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - Love has a language all of its own.

One of the most critically-acclaimed films of the 80s, Children Of A Lesser God garnered four Academy Award nominations and a Best Actress Oscar for Marlee Matlin. Based on the hit Broadway play, it's the uplifting love story of John Leeds (William Hurt), an idealistic special education teacher, and a headstrong deaf girl named Sarah (Marlee Matlin). At first, Leeds sees Sarah as a teaching challenge. But soon their teacher/student relationship blossoms into a love so passionate it shatters the barrier of silence that keeps them apart.

Director: Randa Haines
Cast: William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco, Allison Gompf
Academy Awards: Won for Best Actress-Marlee Matlin. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Screenplay; Best Actor-William Hurt; Best Supporting Actress-Piper Laurie, 1987.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Monaural, French Monaural; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; 17 chapters; rated PG; 118 min.; $29.99; street date 12/12/00.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Mark Medoff | Score soundtrack - Michael Convertino

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/C/D-

Children of a Lesser God easily falls into the category of what I call ďOscar baitĒ. There are some movies that simply reek of award appeal. In this case, the film deals with a minority of disabled folks whose daily lifestyles remain unknown to most people. It adds a Miracle Worker teacher/student aspect and bundles it all into one potentially moving package.

Does it work? Ehhh - sort of. Since I usually detest this type of project, I must admit that I liked Children more than I expected, but I also have to state that there isnít much that can be called unexpected here. Itís just more of the standard claptrap.

The story starts as gung-ho teacher John Leeds (William Hurt) takes on a job at a school for deaf kids. Inevitably, he doesnít want to use the standard methods, and he shakes things up at this staid institution. Of course the kids love him and they learn more than ever, but he soon adopts a new challenge: how to get stubborn and self-isolated Sarah (Marlee Matlin) to emerge from her cocoon.

Thatís the main tale we find in Children as the two eventually fall in love and open up each othersí worlds. Thatís also the main problem I had with the film. What could have been an insightful look at deaf culture instead becomes little more than a tepid romance with a twist.

By no means am I an expert on deaf culture, but I know itís pretty different than the world in which the hearing live due to alterations in customs and what they find important. Those aspects barely come through during Children. This film views deaf society firmly from the outside and never comes close to breaking through that barrier. Other than a cocktail party at which Leeds feels excluded and a mention that Sarah wants to have deaf children - many deaf parents also hope to have hearing impaired kids - thereís little reference to the ways in which their culture differs from ours.

Matlin won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sarah, but frankly I donít think it was deserved. While she offers a decent performance, thereís nothing about it that seemed award-worthy. Frankly, I think the award was just Oscar patting himself on his back for open-mindedness. Just as Harold Russell won an Oscar for essentially playing himself in The Best Years of Our Lives, the same applies to Matlin; she got the prize to demonstrate that Oscar honors diversity.

Thatís a load of hooey. Frankly, if anyone deserved an award for Children, it was Hurt, who has the much-more-difficult role. Not only did he have to portray his character, but he had to learn sign language and then perform all of Matlinís lines for her! Thatís not a slam on Matlin or any of the other hearing impaired performers in the flick; itís simply a recognition of how much work the role must have been for Hurt. Heís the way in which the hearing audience is supposed to gain entry into the story.

Frankly, it would have been a more interesting film if theyíd left out the character, however. Had Children of a Lesser God been more adventurous it could have omitted any hearing roles and used subtitles when necessary. That film could have offered the audience an effective entry into a different culture. That film is not Children. Instead, we have some mildly interesting but predictable warmed-over Miracle Worker glop. This film is well-executed for the most part but doesnít earn any significant respect.

The DVD:

Children of a Lesser God appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the movie displayed some of the general blandness often associated with films of the era, for the most part it presented a clear and attractive picture.

Sharpness usually seemed nicely crisp and well-defined. On a few occasions I saw some mildly soft impressions, but these occurred rarely. For the most part, the movie appeared detailed and clear. Moirť effects and jagged edges presented few concerns, and I also witnessed only modest artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws seemed fairly absent. Some moderate grain affected a few shots, and other examples of speckles and grit cropped up from time to time, but the film generally lacked any form of significant defects.

Colors looked adequate but somewhat drab. Children maintained a fairly subdued palette that favored brownish tones, and these usually came through with acceptable clarity and accuracy. At times flesh could appear slightly pink, and colors also seemed a little bland, but they were represented reasonably well. Black levels are similarly flat and without much depth. This rendered shadow detail somewhat thick and heavy, and low-light scenes appeared fairly tough to discern at times; worst of the bunch were some of the nighttime shots in the pool. Nonetheless, Children presented a fairly typical image for its era, and I thought it seemed reasonably attractive.

The biggest problem I found in the filmís monaural soundtrack stemmed from the fact that it only offered one channel. Movies from the mid-Eighties really should provide multi-channel mixes, so Children lost points right there. However, the quality of the sound seemed acceptably. Dialogue was reasonably crisp and distinct with little edginess and no problems related to intelligibility. Effects were a minor component of the movie but they sounded acceptably clean and realistic, while the score was dated but also fairly bright. The entire mix lacked much depth or dynamic range, but it presented the material with adequate clarity and detail so I canít complain too much about it.

Less compelling are the DVDís extras. All we find is the filmís theatrical trailer. Yawn!

While some additional supplements would have made the DVD more interesting, I doubt they would have enhanced my appreciation of the film. Children of a Lesser God plays it safe and provides the standard claptrap found in virtually all movies about teachers. It was old many years ago, and this flick does nothing to add spark to the genre. The DVD provides decent but unexceptional picture and sound plus virtually no extras. Unless youíre just dying to see something about the deaf culture, Children of a Lesser God is a DVD that you might want to skip.

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