Put God into a movie title and you're pretty close to losing me as a potential viewer. Luckily for me, I was younger and less tired of 'God' movies back before the turn of the century. Children of a Lesser God (1986) makes my list for a number of reasons.
The biggest reason is because religion has nothing to do with this movie. It's about hearing-challenged kids and the teacher who comes to their school a little world-weary and maybe ready to give up. When I say kids, the range is from youngish to adult. One of them is played by Marlee Matlin, the first time I ever saw this dynamic actress on the big screen. It was revelatory.
Matlin, while never placed in this kind of starring role since, has flourished as an actress within the movie and television world ever since. She's been good to great in just about everything. She also makes a great talk-show guest, replete with interpreter. All of that's good, but in this role, Matlin was Oscar-worthy. She plays an angry deaf girl, insistent on using sign language to the exclusion of every other means of potential communication. No reading lips.
Enter William Hurt as the teacher.
The core story of Hurt's re-emergence as a teacher, his falling for Matlin's Sarah and the inevitable happy ending as Matlin simultaneously emerges from the cocoon she had wrapped herself in, is pretty standard stuff. But it's orchestrated beautifully and it tugs on the right sentimental chords as it marches to the end credits. If you can watch this movie and NOT have a tearing moment or a loopy grin during its running time, then you're dead and buried and don't know it.
It's wrong to think of this as a two-person acting exercise. The rest of the hearing-challenged kids are great. They helped explode some myths to me. I didn't know at the time that deaf kids held dances and enjoyed music MORE than I did. The 'singing' scene might sound ... well ... cacophonous, but it worked.
Children of a Lesser God is that rarity of a movie. It entertains and informs, giving us a glimpse into the human condition that we do not share. It's one of my favourite movies of last century.