Simmonds, who is deaf, is a distant cousin of Deafblind activist Keller, and her casting marks a significant turning point for deaf representation on screen. Most adaptations of Keller’s story over the years have generally featured non-deaf actors.
Simmonds will star opposite Brosnahan, who will portray her committed yet controlling translator and companion Sullivan. Cornerstone will handle international sales and distribution, and is set to kick off sales at the American Film Market next month. UTA Independent Film Group and WME are overseeing the U.S. sale.
“Helen & Teacher” is based on the original screenplay by Laetitia Mikles and Westmoreland, in consultation with a team at the Helen Keller National Center for Youth and Adults.
Set during the early 1900s, the story follows Keller’s tumultuous time at Radcliffe College at Harvard University when her rapidly expanding worldview and sexual awakening brings her into direct conflict with the conservative Sullivan. When Sullivan is courted by the young and brilliant publisher, John Macy, tensions escalate between the two women that threaten the bonds of their friendship.
Keller’s story, via her autobiography “The Story of My Life,” has been adapted in numerous stage productions (most famously William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” in 1959) and films, including Disney’s 2000 TV movie “The Miracle Worker,” starring Hallie Kate Eisenberg, who is not deaf, and “The Miracle Worker” (1962), which starred another non-deaf actor, Patty Duke, as Keller. Duke switched roles to play Sullivan in another adaptation of “The Miracle Worker” in 1979, which starred Melissa Gilbert, who is also not deaf, as Keller.
“Helen & Teacher” is a Killer Films and Sugar23 production, and will be produced by Sukee Chew (“The Silencing”) and Pamela Koffler (“Halston”). Victor Paul Wajnberg (“Earthquake Bird”) and Russ Posternak (“Stowaway”) will executive produce. Principal photography is scheduled to begin in summer 2022.
Westmoreland previously won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for “Quinceañera,” and his film “Still Alice” earned Julianne Moore a best actress Oscar. Both films were recipients of the prestigious Humanitas Prize for screenwriting.
“Most people only know of Helen Keller’s story from when she was a child. ‘Helen & Teacher’ will look at her as a young adult when she developed a radical, world-changing political voice,” said Westmoreland. “Today, when some TikTok threads dispute Helen Keller’s achievements and even her existence, it is time for a film that shows her relevance, her brilliance, and her unbreakable spirit.”
Cornerstone’s Alison Thompson and Mark Gooder added: “We are looking forward to re-introduce one of the most famous teacher-student relationships in modern history. The lifelong work on disability rights by these two remarkable women paved the way for future generations. What better way to do it than with this talented creative team.”
Simmonds is represented by WME and Circle of Confusion, Brosnahan by CAA and Brillstein Entertainment Partners, Mikles by Verve and Sugar23, and Westmorland by UTA.
(Pictured, L-R: Rachel Brosnahan, Millicent Simmonds)