Mark Medoff’s award-winning 1979 play uses issues connected with deafness to develop a theme about the gap between men and women, or the difficulties of relationships in general. It’s an unusually mature view of relationships, and is prepared to drill down on one particular aspect; the egocentric behaviour of men. This 1986 film version was directed by a woman, Randa Haines, and concerns the controlling relationship between a teacher (William Hurt) and the janitor (Marlee Matlin) at the remote school for deaf children where he works. A newcomer matched with a hugely popular actor struck sparks, but Matlin recently revealed that her off-screen relationship with Hurt mirrored that portrayed in negative ways; looking solely at what’s on-screen, Children of a Lesser God firmly addresses the issues that led to MeToo.
James Leeds (Hurt) is a young and gifted teacher; his new employer (Phillip Bosco) jokes that he’s ‘been to all the best schools’. We see Leeds in action with a small class, and he’s pretty good, managing to reach most, but not all of his students with a mixture of games, comedy and musical performance understood through vibration. Leeds has a certain white saviour quality, one that immediately raises hostility from ex-student Sarah Norman (Matlin) who empties the bins in his classroom. The two start up a relationship, but while Leeds is happy to take credit for Sarah’s signing and social abilities, he’s also aggressive and manipulative towards her, and she eventually moves out of the house they share together.
At heart, Children of a Lesser God tells a romantic story; Leeds never sets out to do anything but right by Sarah. But his actions are selfish; he blames her for him not wanting to listen to music, and can’t help himself from goading her to speak like him, even though she has a specific problem with that. Leeds takes the compliments on Sarah’s bridge technique when they turn up as a couple at a social function, but not only doesn’t protect her from the patronising comments of other guests, but doesn’t even notice that they are an issue, and how upsetting they are for her. Based on a real couple that Medoff knew, James and Sarah are sympathetic in the way that they struggle to connect; he means well, and she’s been abused before, but that doesn’t give him the right to control her.
Children of a Lesser God makes a great coup from the casting of non-hearing actors, with the shorthand for the development of Leeds’ class providing a charming spine. The acting is very strong too, with Hurt’s famously halting delivery well-served, and Matlin offering up a transformative performance as Sarah, one that led her to an Oscar. Not everything that was acceptable in the 80’s is acceptable now, but Haines’ film is smarter than you might remember. Locating an issue in male control, and setting her heroine against that control, Children of a Lesser God has a central message that’s relevant to MeToo; there’s no reason for any woman to have to accept a male view of the world around them.