Children of a Lesser God is a love story about a speech teacher who falls for a beautiful yet distant deaf girl in a small New England school for the deaf, and the obstacles that they face due to their differences.
William Hurt plays James Leeds, a renegade teacher with an unconventional approach to education and a resume that includes stints as a bartender and a disk jockey. Upon his arrival, he is warned by school administrator Dr. Franklin (Philip Bosco) not to get creative with his instruction.
Naturally, Leeds already has his mind set on his teaching plan and proceeds to play loud rock music in class in order to teach the students to feel the vibrations of the music and get them to try to speak phonetically. But a new element enters his life when he meets the attractive custodian, Sarah (Marlee Matlin).
An exceptionally intelligent yet extremely bitter young woman, Sarah is a graduate of the school who has decided to remain there, in the confines of her world of silence; it's safer for her to be with her own people than to face what she perceives as a cruel and uncaring world.
She hardly seems interested in James and will only communicate with him through signing, although she can read lips and even speak a little. James learns from Sarah's mother (Piper Laurie) that Sarah was sexually molested as a teenager; this explains why she is so wary of his attempts to form a relationship with her and why she is so full of fear.
Eventually, James does get through to Sarah and the two fall in love, although both have to learn new ways to communicate their feelings. Though it seldom resembles the Mark Medoff play on which it was based, this directing debut from Randa Haines won an Best Actress Oscar for Matlin, for her first screen performance.