Children of a Lesser God On DVD

William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco. Directed by Randa Haines. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1. Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono). 118 minutes. 1986. Paramount 01839. PG. $29.99.

This drama is basically a love story—incredibly well-acted—with only its setting to distinguish it from all the others. That setting—a school for the deaf on an isolated New England island—provides a rich backdrop for the story, which involves a hearing language teacher (William Hurt) and an embittered graduate of the school, a woman who steadfastly refuses to accommodate the hearing world by learning to speak (Marlee Matlin).

Based on Mark Medoff's well-regarded play, Children of a Lesser God was Randa Haines' directorial debut and has a bit of the movie-of-the-week flavor to it, reducing the complex subject of how the deaf and hearing communities approach communication into a philosophical backdrop for its rather ordinary story. The film's age works against it, too—in the 15 years since its release, those two communities have become even more polarized. If it were released now, many non-hearing moviegoers would be repulsed by the film's dubious victory of an ending. Is Matlin's character really better off as a deaf manicurist in the "real" (i.e., hearing) world rather than as a janitor living in the close community of her non-hearing peers? The answer is far less obvious than the movie would have us believe.

What saves the film are the intensity of Hurt's performance and the passion of Matlin's. Children was Matlin's break-out role, and she makes the most of it in an intensely physical, mercurial performance that won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. That she's also breathtakingly beautiful doesn't hurt a bit. Piper Laurie and Philip Bosco turn in marvelous supporting performances—Bosco as the sarcastic head of the school, Laurie as Matlin's mother.

The telecine transfer is superb. The rich colors of the New England coast's (actually, New Brunswick, Canada) seasonal changes are complemented by sumptuous, velvety-black night scenes, including an eerily beautiful repeated refrain that becomes a visual metaphor of isolation—Matlin swimming alone in the school's unlit swimming pool.

The sound is clear and well-recorded, if nothing special—it's confined to the front speakers, of course, and is clean, if not pellucid. No special features are included, which would be fine if the film itself felt more complete. As it is, this release, like Children of a Lesser God itself, strikes this 2001 viewer as an interesting idea, good enough for what it is, but ultimately missing something.