Children of a Lesser God
Based on Mark Medoff’s play, a teacher at a deaf school falls in love with a deaf graduate who is working as a cleaning lady.
James Leeds (William Hurt) takes his pickup truck on a ferry to an island and then drives to a school. He goes in, and in his office the principal Dr. Curtis Franklin (Philip Bosco) says it is the most amazing resumé he has ever seen. They agree he has been to the best schools. James says he has also been a bartender and a disc jockey. Franklin says he has been all over the map, and James says he has a lot of energy. Franklin says they are not trying to change the world but to help a few deaf kids get along better.
James is sitting in front of his class, and one student is shaving with an electric razor. James falls out of his chair sideways on to the floor. One student claps. James jumps up and introduces himself. He speaks as he signs and says his signing is rusty. He asks how many can read lips without signing. None of the six students respond, and he dismisses the class. Five of the students get up and walk to the door. He tells them to come back because he was just testing them. He goes to the other student and closes his notebook. He signs as he asks them why they should learn to speak. Tony (Frank Carter Jr.) signs and says so that they can pick up hearing girls. James has four students put their desks facing each other, and he asks Danny (William D. Byrd) what he would say to pick up these two beautiful girls. Danny asks if they are rich, and James has him say it better. Lydia (Allison Gompf) says she is very rich. James calls on Tony who suggests they go somewhere and do it. Cheryl (Georgia Ann Cline) says no thank you. James repeats what he said emphasizing the “it,” and Tony says he would rather do it with her. James says that was cute. James asks if the other two students want to join them, and Cheryl says they don’t talk. James gives the reasons to talk. He says if your hands are occupied and gives an example. He stands on his hands and asks a person for the money he owes him. Another teacher sees his legs in the air through the window in the door.
In the school cafeteria James see an argument going on in the kitchen. He reads the signing of Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), and she notices him as she comes out and sits at a table. Franklin asks James to join his table and introduces him to the teachers Mar Lee Ochs (E. Katherine Kerr) and Orin (Bob Hiltermann). James says he heard that Orin is a former student. Mar Lee says she will see them later and takes her tray away. James sees Sarah again and asks who she is. Franklin says she is a pain in the ass, and she works there. Orin says that Sarah also came there in year 5 as he did. James asks if she is a teacher, and Franklin says she was one of their brightest students.
James leaves his classroom at the end of the day and takes the ferry, getting a box meal.
At home he tells his phonograph that it will work. He enjoys the music of Bach and talks to his cat.
In his office James is coaching Lydia how to speak better. He plays music and has her put her hands on the speaker. He gets her to sing along, and they dance.
Franklin hears the music and goes down stairs and into the room, turns off the music, and walks out. James signs and has Lydia say, “What a drip.” Franklin hears this as he goes up the stairs.
James reads a paper and throws it away. He sees Sarah mopping the floor in the hall and tries to talk to her. She points to the wet floor, and he stops. She walks across the wet floor and goes into his office and begins to take out his trash. He says that is not what he meant and says he wanted to introduce himself. He asks if she wants to sit down, and he sits down. He asks her to look at him. He speaks to her without signing and then signs to ask if she can read lips. He says she could have told him, and signs why. He suggests common courtesy. She signs that he get out of there so that she can mop the floor. He signs that if she let him, he could teach her how to speak. She signs that she could teach him how to mop, but he says he does not want to mop the floor. She gets up to go, and he realizes that she does not want to speak. She signs that he is brilliant and walks out.
Sarah is swimming in the pool in the dark.
Franklin and James are walking on the soaked football field during practice, and Franklin says that Sarah is not hard of hearing but was born totally deaf. James says that makes it very tough. He is bothered that a smart woman is stuck there cleaning toilets. Franklin says it does not bother her and that not everyone wants to be a star. He says she is happy now. She had a rotten childhood because she was diagnosed as retarded until she was seven. He says they educated her and made her productive so that she can pay taxes. James is concerned. Franklin says if he wants to try, he will talk to her.
Franklin brings Sarah into James’ office and says she has agreed to an hour. Franklin asks her if she is looking forward to it, and she imitates a puppy panting and begging. Franklin tells Jim to have fun and goes out and closes the door. She looks around. He says he minds her smoking, but she lights up anyway. He asks if she would like to fake out Franklin and make James look good. She signs, and he says he didn’t get it. She signs very slowly and then accelerates as she signs that if he does not sign faster, the hour will be over before he finishes his little speech. She signs that he is not funny. He disagrees and signs that if she could hear, she would think he was a scream. She signs she is deaf and not to forget it. He signs that he won’t. He stands up to get something, and she leaves the room.
James plays basketball with students.
In class Glen (Philip Holmes) signs that he likes Twisted Sister, and Lydia tells him that is a rock group. James tries to get Glen to speak that. Glen declines, and James asks for one sound. He asks him to try to say the letter T. Glen tries, and James approves of his effort. James asks Johnny (John F. Cleary) who his favorite person is and makes some suggestions of famous people. Johnny gets up and walks out as the bell rings.
James is running outside and skims rocks on the water. He sees Sarah nearby, and they meet. He signs a humorous comment and says she almost smiled. She keeps a serious face, and he says that is the Sarah they all know. He signs that if his jokes are terrible and his signing is boring, he asks why she is there when there is an empty beach. She walks away, and he says she is unbelievable. He walks over to her and signs that he tried to call her mother. She signs furiously, and he signs that he did not even talk to her. He asks if they can stop this. He signs asking if they could go out and have dinner tonight. He asks her to reply yes or no. She thinks for a while and signs yes. He signs that he will meet her at 8 behind the girls dormitory. She signs something and walks away. He shouts that is the first sign he ever learned.
At the restaurant Sarah frowns at the menu. He signs that it is in Italian and asks if he can suggest something. After she signs, he asks her to give him a break because his Italian is worse than his signing. He signs that the veal piccata is very good. He says by the time he finishes they may be out of it. She asks what it is, and he describes it for her. She asks what veal is, but he does not answer. A waiter asks if they want anything to drink, and James orders white wine. She signs that he thinks she is stupid, but James says he thinks she is deaf. She signs, and he replies that only stupid hearing people think that deaf people are stupid. Later while they are eating, he asks if she likes being a cleaning woman and why. She replies, and he signs there are other jobs where a person can work alone in silence. She says not with toilet bowl cleaner. He signs that she is very smart. She asks if he wants to dance, and he asks if she can feel the vibrations. She signs that she can through her nose. They get up, and he signs he is not good at this. On the dance floor they move slowly. Without moving her feet she dances with the rest of her body. She closes her eyes. The romantic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” starts, and she opens her eyes. They dance close together, and then she signs asking why he became a speech teacher. He says he does not know and wants to dance. He says it is hard to talk while dancing. She signs, and he replies that maybe he likes to hear himself talk. They dance with her head on his chest. He signs that he is a really good teacher and that she should let him help her. She mouths words silently, and he asks what that was. She signs that Lydia does not talk like that. He asks if she wants to get along in the world. She signs that no one wants his help, and he replies that is her opinion. She signs that she will not do anything that she can’t do well.
James parks his truck, and they get out. They walk to her door. She unlocks it and goes in.
Mrs. Norman (Piper Laurie) opens her door, and James says he did not call again because she would have hung up on him. She says she could also close the door. He says it is sixty miles there and back, and he asks her for five minutes. She says she just got home from work and wants to relax, but she lets him in. They sit down. He says she has not seen Sarah for eight years, and she says that Sarah does not want to see her. He asks if she said why. She says they don’t communicate very well. He asks if she learned to sign. She is sick of these people coming around every couple years asking the same questions, blaming her. He says no one is blaming her. She says they are because they can’t blame themselves. She does not give a damn. He says he came to ask her one question: “What happened when Sarah tried to speak?” She says she looked awful and sounded awful, and people made fun of her. He asks who made fun of her. She says kids and her sister’s friends. She stopped trying to talk. She says boys that knew her sister Ruth started asking her out on weekends. She says it was wonderful for her because the boys really liked her and treated her like they treated her sister with respect.
James comes in early and tries to talk to Sarah while she is cleaning. He signs that he wants to work with her, and he understands she is scared. She signs that he understands nothing. She runs out and down the stairs. He follows her and calls to her. Franklin sarcastically tells him that yelling at the back of a deaf person is very good. James follows her into the library. He signs asking why she stopped going home and if the boys she was going out with had anything to do with it. She replies, and he admits he talked to her mother. She tries to leave, and he asks her to let him help her. She signs asking if he is going to show her the joys of sex with a hearing man. He replies that is one language that she does not speak. She signs that the hearing boys never learned her language. She was always expected to learn to speak, but she does not speak. Sex was something she could do as well as hearing girls or better. At first she let them have her because they wanted to. They got on a waiting list her sister kept for her. She signs that there was no introduction and no talk. They just went to a dark place. She signs they did not even take her out for a coke first. She walks up to him and signs asking if that is what he wanted to know about her. He says no. She signs that he thought he was a big deal coming on to the deaf girl, but he denies that. All the time she was laughing at him because she thought he was thinking poor, little deaf virgin who spread her legs for everyone. He asks if she thinks he cares about what she did. He says he does not care about that. She walks out.
At night James walks on the street.
Sarah swims naked in a pool. James comes into the room. He signs asking her to listen to him. He says he did the wrong thing, and he is sorry. He asks her to tell him what to say. She is at the edge of the pool and does not sign. He signs that she is the most mysterious interesting person he ever met. She swims away. He signs that he is falling in love. He falls into the pool with his clothes on. He swims toward her, and she touches his head. They kiss while treading water. She takes him underwater for a kiss and starts taking off his clothes. They embrace naked under water.
Franklin comes out of his house and sees James running in wet clothes to his truck, and he drives away.
James is sitting at a table in Franklin’s office, and they talk about poker and playing cards; but James says tic-tac-toe is his game. Franklin says they are happy to have him with them. He asks his size and tells him to be careful.
Sarah and James are watching the movie Some Like It Hot, and he signs for her. She touches his hand, and they look at each other.
Sarah and James come into a room and start taking their clothes off. Later in bed she signs that he is the nicest person she ever met. He signs that is the craziest thing he ever heard. She signs that after what he told her she thought she would never see him again; but he kisses her and says he is here. She signs, and he says he was in love; but she broke his heart. He asks if anyone ever broke her heart. She says she never hurts from other people, and he signs that is not true. He knows. She turns away. He asks what would happen if she admitted that she ever hurt, and she signs that she would shrivel up and blow away. He puts his arm around her and whispers he will take care of her.
James is playing basketball and argues with William (John Limnidis) over a foul. He tells him to say the word “ass-hole” and gets him to do it.
James at night parks his truck by water and sees Sarah holding a cat. He asks her what waves sound like, and she answers by moving her hands. He asks how she got to be so brilliant, beautiful, and pig-headed. She says she is not stubborn. He speaks to her without signing and asks her to tell him what he is saying. She gets upset, and he promises not to do it again.
A banner welcomes parents, and they park their cars. Franklin talks to some of them. Children put on a show in costumes, and people applaud. James presents his 11th-grade speech class. They start music, and three boys and two girls dance to “Boomerang.” Their t-shirts say “The No Tones.” Parents are amazed that they are actually singing, though a father says it is a stupid song. Sarah is watching. People applaud, and James sees Sarah leave the auditorium.
Sarah is cleaning and throws a brush at a mirror, breaking it. A mother protects her child from the shattered glass.
Franklin reacts that James said it was just a cut; but he says it was five stitches, and she could have hurt herself seriously. It was in front of a parent too. He says it is going to stop now. James says he does not know what made her upset. Franklin says he has no right to mess her up. James replies that she is not messed up. Franklin says he will not discuss it, and no one is going to fuck with one of his students. James says she is not student but a 25-year old woman. Franklin says it will stop. James says she is quitting her job and moving in with him. Franklin says she is going to be his maid now. James gets angry and opens the door to go, but Franklin says he is sorry and that it was not fair to either of them. Franklin says he has seen this before, and it doesn’t work. James says this is Sarah and him; he loves her. James leaves the office.
In her room James tells Sarah that the kids made him happy, and he asks if that is against the law. She signs, and he says he does not hate her for not learning how to speak. He signs that he loves her. He asks where her suitcase is, and he finds one in the closet. He signs that she is moving in with him today. He signs that he is packing her clothes. She signs, and he tells her to screw her job because he has money. She signs, and he says she can do whatever she wants. He asks what she wants, and she points to him. He says she got him and asks what else. She signs that she wants children. He asks if she wants him to say that he wants deaf children, he does not; but if they were, that would be fine.
James and Sarah are on the ferry with his truck.
Sarah and James are sitting on his back porch. She goes inside, and he asks her to get him some too and then realizes that she did not hear him.
William tells James that he does not think he is an ass-hole anymore. He speaks that he thinks he is a “dick-brain.” James commends his work on speaking.
In class James is playing a game with the students asking for their favorites. They answer by speaking.
Sarah is putting on makeup by a mirror, and James asks if she is ready. She signs, and he says Franklin will not ask her to speak. He says she looks gorgeous, and they kiss.
Franklin is having a party and answers the door. He welcomes James and is surprised to see Sarah. Franklin asks James if she learned how to play poker. James says like him she learned it out of a book. They sit around the table, and Franklin tells Sarah no cheating. He says he has seen deaf people cheat like bandits. Sarah says James won’t cheat because he is not deaf. Sarah draws the high card and shuffles well before she deals. She signs the game is five-card draw with one-eyed jacks wild. Franklin says James is doing great with her. Sarah won money, and she embraces James. Franklin asks James where he can get that book.
James and Sarah are making love. He says he can’t get close enough. He asks her to say his name once. She signs, and he says he is sorry; he forgot. She signs, and he says he is not lying. He does not want her to speak; it just came out. He signs that he is sorry.
James is playing football with his students.
Students are watching TV in James’ house, and Sarah is preparing food in the kitchen. He says the phone is ringing and tells them to turn the TV down. He tells Sarah the kettle is whistling. He answers the phone and asks them to hold on. He signs that the water is boiling and says hello. He tells Sarah it is for her. Suddenly the TV is shut off, and the students say goodbye and go out. He translates the call for the deaf people. Sarah signs, and he says it is Sarah speaking to Orin. She asks why he is calling. James tells her that Orin is having a dinner party and would like her to come. James translates and asks about himself. She gets confused, and James says that it was Orin, not himself, who was saying please. James says that Orin wants her to come to a party for Marian Loesser. She is dying to see Sarah and bring James. It is on Friday the seventh, and James says they will be there. He says it is suddenly quiet in here. She signs that he makes everything into a joke. He denies that and admits he may obscure things. She is in the kitchen, and he signs that he is going to rest his hands and eyes and listen to Bach for twenty minutes. She nods. He signs that he has not turned on his hi-fi since she— Her finger to her lips makes him stop talking. He says he is blaming her for him not listening to music. She signs, and he thanks her. He starts the concerto for violins and lies down on the sofa. He gets up and stops the record. She signs to him, and he replies that he can’t enjoy it because she can’t. He sits on the sofa.
Sarah is mouthing words in the mirror. James takes off his t-shirt and hears the Bach record playing. She signs asking him to show her the music. He points to the sky and smiles in joy. With his other hand he lifts up, and his two hands meet. He shakes his head and says he can’t. He hugs her. She signs, and he says he won’t be sad for her. She kisses him, and they embrace.
On a dock Sarah signs, and James says he does not know what she should wear to the party. He answers that he does not know Marian. She signs that she is very famous in the deaf community. She signs that she has two Ph.D.’s, and she doesn’t speak. He has been noticing the fish men have caught, and she signs that she can’t communicate with someone whose mind is busy. He says she is right. He signs, asking what she hears or is it just silence. She says no one has ever got in there to find out. He asks if she will ever let him in.
At the dinner party people are signing silently. Sarah is conversing with Marian Loesser (Linda Bove). James asks a woman if Marian is a lawyer. She says she is an economist in Washington. James say they seem to be talking in a strange dialect. The woman says she knows the feeling.
As they come into his house he admits that just because he wanted to leave, it does not mean that she wanted to go. He asks what is wrong with her tonight. She smokes and signs that Marian is great. She has everything, education, a great job, and money. James says she does not have him. She signs that they are not talking about him for once. He admits that is true. He suggests they crawl under the covers and pretend they are in some romantic place. He asks why she is so miserable. She signs that they can go to sleep. He says she can’t start a bonfire and then says goodnight or run away. She signs that she can do whatever she wants. She signs that he treats her like an idiot, and he pities her. He tells her to wait a second. She signs that he does not let her be herself. He wants to change her into a hearing person. She signs that he wants to change deaf people. He says goodnight and goes in the bedroom. She follows him. She signs, and he says she thinks that he wants her to speak. She signs that she just wants to be her. He asks who the hell she is. He turns away, and she stamps her feet. She signs, and he says she wants to make love now. He says, “Fuck you.” She starts taking off her clothes, and he says she understood that. They kiss passionately and aggressively.
Later he says that did not help much, and they get up off the floor. He takes a drink with ice and says that helped. He lies on the sofa. She signs, and he asks what she has just decided. She signs that no one is ever going to speak for her again. He asks how she will manage. She signs that people often say what she thinks; but most of the time they are wrong because they had no idea what she said. She signs that now they won’t. He says that is all right with him. She signs, and he says he won’t because he loves her. She says love has nothing to do with it. He asks then what they have been doing. She signs that he should watch her hands, and he replies it is hard to avoid them. She signs that the sign to connect is simple, but it means so much more. Now it means to join in a relationship, separate but one. She says that is what she wants. She wants him to think for Sarah as if there was no I. She signs that he only loves that she will do things with him. She signs that until he learns how to let her be herself, he can never come inside her silence. She signs that until that time they cannot be really connected. He signs that that is all very moving, but he asks how she is going to do it. He signs that she can lock herself back into her precious silent castle. She signs, and he says he heard every word she signed. He translated it, and it went into his brain and out of his mouth. He signs that he thinks she is lying. He does not believe that she thinks being deaf is so wonderful. She walks away, and he goes to her and signs that he thinks she is scared to death to try. He says it is stupid pride that is preventing her from speaking correctly. He signs that she wants to be on her own and does not want to be pitied. Then she must learn to read lips and use her mouth for something other than showing hearing girls that she is better in bed. He signs that she should read his lips, and he asks what he is saying. He signs if she wants to talk to him, then she must learn his language. He asks if she understood that. He says she has probably been reading lips for years; but she wants to be the controller. He says that is a big joke, and he tells her to speak to him. She screams some words that indicate she wants to be free. She goes out the front door.
Sarah is walking on a highway at night and tries to hitch-hike.
James drives his truck at night.
Sarah knocks on a door, and her mother lets her in. They sit down together with tea, and her mother signs asking if she came home to stay. Sarah signs, and her mother says of course she can stay as long as she likes. Sarah signs about a job, but there is nothing. Her mother signs that she will help. Sarah signs that she never helps. Her mother touches her face and asks her not to hurt her now. She refers to the last time, and Sarah signs. Her mother signs that she sent her away because she did not know how to take care of her. She says that her father could not accept her and felt that he had failed. Sarah signs, and her mother replies that she is right that she hated her for driving him away. Her mother signs asking her to forgive her. Her mother signs that the telephone is ringing and asks what she should say. Sarah signs, and her mother answers the phone and talks to James.
James walks on the beach. In a bar he tries plugging his ears with his fingers.
Sarah walks on the street in the rain.
James is under water in the pool to experience silence. In his apartment he listens to music and feels sad.
Sara goes to a restaurant and looks out the window.
In his class students discuss their favorite books. Glen shows him the Skull comic book. James says he will put it on his summer reading list.
On her front porch James tells Mrs. Norman that he has to see Sarah. She says that she is working now. She is saving money so that she can go to college. He says that is wonderful. He says he looked all over, and he says please.
James is driving his truck in town and double parks. He sees Sarah putting nail polish on for a woman and getting paid.
Sarah comes up stairs, and her mother says she is doing spring cleaning. Her mother signs to her asking about her day and if she is okay. Sarah signs that she got an offer. Her mother hands her a music box with a dancing figure. Her mother signs that he was here. She signs that he misses her. Sarah signs, and her mother hugs her.
People are dancing to rock and roll. James comes in with Orin and his wife. James tells William to have a good summer and be careful with his language skills because they can be dangerous. James signs to Tony who is dancing. James sees Sarah, and they look at each other. He walks away and goes outside. She follows him to the parking lot. He laughs and signs that she looks beautiful. They sit on a bench three feet apart. He signs that it was a shock to see her in there. She signs that she was scared too. He remembers the “Boomerang” song and sings a little. She stands up and signs that she has been angry since she was a little girl. She didn’t not want to hurt again; so she used her anger to push him away. She is sorry, and he signs that he is sorry for hurting her. She signs that she learned from him that she can hurt, and she won’t shrivel up and blow away. Some drunk men are nearby, and they go for a walk to the beach and a small dock. She signs, and he replies that he does not want to be without her either. He asks if she thinks they can find a place where they can meet, not in silence and not in sound. They both are smiling and sign that the love each other. She makes the sign for connection, and he does too. They touch hands and hug and kiss.
This romantic drama explores the world of the deaf and the struggles they have to communicate. A conscientious teacher who is used to helping deaf people speak is challenged by a beautiful woman who does not want to speak. They learn to explore each other’s worlds and form a deep connection.