James Leeds (Hurt) is an educator and speech therapist who gets a job teaching at a school for the deaf somewhere in New England. Soon after taking the job he meets Sarah Norman (Matlin), a deaf woman and a former student at the school who is now working there as a janitor. James is intrigued by the fiery, hot-tempered, and extremely good-looking Sarah. Soon they have fallen in love and moved in together. However, Sarah's angst and childhood traumas, and James's fundamental inability as a hearing person to appreciate the life of a deaf person, threaten to split the couple up.
Adaptation of a stage play that won a Tony. Debut feature of Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for this part and remains the youngest woman ever to win an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Piper Laurie appears as Sarah's mom.
- '80s Hair: How much product was used to make Sarah's hair that poofy? The world may never know.
- Bilingual Dialogue: Sort of. While James is fully capable of communicating in American Sign Language (he'd be a pretty bad teacher at a school for the deaf if he wasn't), he has a habit of verbally saying both what he's signing to her and what she's signing to him. This, of course, is for the benefit of an audience that doesn't know ASL.
- Call-Back: Dr. Franklin, the dean of the school, angrily turns off James's record player the first time James is playing "Boomerang" for a student. Later, he's walking around singing the song to himself (it is quite an Ear Worm).
- Cool Teacher: James teaches his students to talk by having them sing to silly pop songs. He demonstrates the need to talk by doing a handstand in class, and pointing out that, well, if you're doing a handstand you can't use sign language.
- Disabled Love Interest: Sarah. One of the things Sarah holds against James is her belief that he sees her as a disabled person who needs improvement as opposed to a fully rounded human being.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: As Marlee Matlin recounted in 2022, in one scene Sarah signs "fuck you". Said scene was then used frequently in the media to promote the film as the marketers were unaware that she was making an obscene gesture.
- Meet Cute: James first notices Sarah when he's getting lunch at the cafeteria, and he notices her giving a very long and very angry harangue to the cook.
- Rule of Pool: When James visits Sarah at the pool (see Skinny Dipping below), he starts to tell Sarah he's fallen in love with her, but then he slips and falls:James: I'm falling in the pool with you!
- Running Gag: James's one student who chooses to work on learning how to speak by luxuriating in profanities. He calls James "asshole", "dick brain", and "fuckface" over the course of the film.
- Secret Test: In his first class James asks which of his students can read lips. None of them admit it. He then says "Class dismissed!" without signing it; when two students get up he nails them as being able to read lips.
- Shout-Out: James and Sarah go to a screening of Some Like It Hot.
- Skinny Dipping: Sarah has a habit of unwinding after finishing work at the school by swimming naked in the gym pool.
- The Speechless: Sarah has one line, during her and James's breakup scene, timed for maximum effect. Otherwise she communicates physically and with American Sign Language.