Picks and Pans Review: Children of a Lesser God

updated 09/29/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

You're probably tempted to skip this movie. Admit it. When it sinks in that the title is familiar from the Tony-winning 1980 play about a teacher of the deaf, the dread is likely to mount. Hard experience shows that Hollywood's usual tendency is to hype and trivialize these inspirational dramas. Sure the critics rave. What else can they do without looking like a herd of uncaring ogres? If you see this movie, it may only be out of duty or guilt. And, boy, will you be surprised. Children turns out to be deeply romantic, a sensitive and sexy love story. William Hurt—fresh from his Oscar win for Kiss of the Spider Woman—plays the teacher, and he's never been more appealing. Arriving at a school for the deaf in Maine (the film was actually shot in Canada), Hurt uses jokes, profanity and even the vibrations of rock music to move his students away from what he considers the crutch of sign language and into lipreading and speech. Then he slams right into a brick wall. Her name is Sarah. An incurably deaf former student, she is fluent at signing, and regards speaking as an acceptance of inferiority in a hearer's world. She prefers cleaning the school toilets to the possibility of winning a better job through compromise. In a knockout screen debut, deaf theater actress Marlee Matlin, 21, shows how Sarah's resentment won't let her relax. Even love doesn't leave her pliant; she's all ragged edges. Matlin's remarkably expressive face and body render Hurt's translations of her signings an unnecessary contrivance. Though student falls for teacher and moves in with him (onstage they got married), she won't agree to let him play miracle worker. Like most couples at odds, they also use sex—and anything else handy—to score points off each other. But the only victory is a grudging mutual understanding. Or so it was in the stage version. Onscreen, playwright Mark Medoff (who co-wrote the script with Hesper Anderson) has let his cold distrust of easy answers thaw into a sap-happy ending. And though first-time feature director Randa Haines (best known for the TV incest drama Something About Amelia) has made that rare filmed play that looks like a movie, she shows an exasperating preference for making too many scenes postcard pretty. Haines and Medoff are both to be credited, though, for allowing the student-teacher relationship to do the work of the play's deaf-rights preachiness. Hurt and Matlin, who became real-life lovers during shooting, display a passionate urgency that is more profound than polemical. Exhausted from signing during one argument, they drop their hands and stare at each other with the wounded eyes of lovers who've run out of ways to express their need. The painful eloquence of their silence is unforgettable. (R)

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