An energetic new teacher, James Leeds (William Hurt), arrives at a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in New England. He soon sees a young deaf woman working as a janitor. The woman, Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), a former top student, is not well-regarded by the hearing staff, but seems to integrate well with the deaf students. James begins to try to talk with her, arranging a meeting through her boss, pursuing her after school while she is attempting to clean, and persisting despite being rejected several times. She eventually agrees to go to dinner, and he watches her dance from the sidelines.
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Sarah does not want to vocalize, and James eventually agrees not to try to force her to—a promise he later breaks. He finds out that Sarah refuses to visit her home, and assumes her mother (Piper Laurie) has stopped reaching out. Through her mother, James finds out that Sarah and her sister Ruth were popular, and according to her mother her peers treated Sarah as if she weren’t different from other women. Unfortunately, Sarah later reveals that she was sorely used by the unnamed “boys”, and may have been a victim of sex abuse. Such treatment has led Sarah to mistrust men and resist interacting with anyone. Later, in a pool scene, he walks in on her swimming nude. James confesses that he is falling in love with Sarah. She seems to be afraid. He falls into the pool on purpose, which changes the mood of the interaction. They share a passionate kiss in the water, then James undresses. It is implied that they had sex that night for the first time.
The relationship between James and Sarah develops. The school superintendent warns James that he doesn’t believe the relationship will work, but James is adamant that he will stay with Sarah because he loves her. James choreographs a dance with his deaf students, in which they lip-sync to a song on a stage in front of their parents. Sarah sees this performance and becomes upset. The conflict between James and Sarah persists as she thinks James hates her for not speaking. James convinces Sarah to leave her job and move in with him, although it is not clear what her plans for the future are. James’s determination to hear Sarah speak and his inability to help her to develop individual pursuits frustrates her, and she feels he is patronizing her. They split up shortly after.
Sarah leaves James and goes to live with her estranged mother, reconciling with her in the process. James chases her, but she refuses to see him. After inquiring about her, James learns Sarah is working as a manicurist. Eventually, she and James reconcile at the school prom. They decide to learn how to stay connected in-between the world of silence and the world of sound.