The idealistic teacher. The unresponsive institution. The brave deaf children struggling to overcome their handicap. The particularly difficult case. The breakthrough. The setbacks. The ultimate triumph. Children of a Lesser God omits nothing from the formula that guarantees a work to be routinely moving.
On the other hand, it is not easy to shrug off. For in writing the play on which the film is based, Mark Medoff shrewdly, perhaps courageously, added an unexpected element to the mix. He permitted love--the real, sexual thing--to develop between that too-good teacher (played with a bit too much self-regard by William Hurt) and one of the school's charges.
Sarah (Marlee Matlin) is not officially a student. She is a graduate who has her own bitter reasons for staying on campus, doing menial work, instead of rejoining the world. If anything, the abuses she once suffered make her more vulnerable and touching. Yet she never seems pathetic, not as played by Matlin, who is a beautiful young woman and an actress of awesome gifts. Spotted playing a minor role in a Chicago revival of the play, she has an unusual talent for concentrating her emotions--and an audience's--in her signing. But there is something more here, an ironic intelligence, a fierce but not distancing wit, that the movies, with their famous ability to photograph thought, discover in very few performances. Children of a Lesser God, though given a handsome openness in Director Haines' production, cannot transcend the banalities of the play. But Matlin does. She is, one might say, a miracle worker. --R.S.