October 19, 2020 Radium Girls (Movie Review)
A film that took a while to get a release, Radium Girls turned up at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, then continued on the festival circuit for another year, popping up at the Women’s Film Festival and Florida Film Festival in 2019. Set for release broadly in April, until COVID-19 spoiled everyone’s plans, now it will finally make its way to select theaters and virtual cinemas on Friday, October 23, 2020 via Juno Films.
But what is it about? Well, in Law & Order-esque fashion, the story is based on real events in the late 1920s, but the names involved have been changed.
New Jersey teens Bessie (Joey King: The Conjuring 2013, The Act 2019) and Josephine (Abby Quinn: Landline 2017, After the Wedding 2019) dream of going elsewhere as they paint glow-in-the-dark watch dials for the American Radium Company. But then things go wrong when Josephine gets increasingly sick. Bessie, Josephine, and the other Radium Girls were told the paint they were using was safe to use, but once Bessie joins forces with an activist movement, they discover American Radium were lying about the paint to their workforce. Now they aim to sue them for damages in a lawsuit that would impact workplace health and safety and scientific studies worldwide.
The film is the feature-length debut for directors Lydia Dean Pilcher (The Darjeeling Limited 2007, A Call to Spy 2019) and Ginny Mohler (Gunslingers series, K’naan: In the Beginning 2009), who wrote the script alongside Brittany Shaw (Garden Death 2009, Usluckyounguns 2011). Pilcher also worked as a producer on the film, alongside Emily McEvoy (Queen of Katwe 2016, Materna 2020) and Executive Producer Lily Tomlin (Nashville 1975, 9 to 5 1980), amongst a host of others.
So, essentially, it is a film about women, by women, and for, well, anyone interested in legal and science history. If they were rebooting an ’80’s franchise instead, men on the internet would have had another fit. But is it any good?
The intro does a good job setting the scene. It has a carnival barker extolling radium’s ‘virtues’ between cuts of new-fangled things like moving pictures, cannons, and Mount Rushmore. There are also photos and footage of women from the age, sometimes protesting for the right to vote, and mostly working in industry. It suggests that women were just as vital to modernity as anyone else (which they were and are), yet their delivery to that modern age was more painful than that of technology, etc. Hence the film’s subject matter.
Its technical qualities are quite good too. The colors are a touch cooler to give it that early-20th Century period piece vibe, like every other film set before the late ’60s/early ’70s or so. However, it does not have that grainy look that the likes of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger had. The film has enough signs of the times through its costumes, cars, technology, and people unafraid to drink radioactive water, etc. The crisp, clear HD look with the ’20’s chic is much easier on the eyes by comparison.
The film also has some nice visual storytelling elements here and there. Like when Bessie first catches sight of Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet: Blue Bloods series, Wilding 2018), with a quick POV shot showing his good looks are not the only thing that caught her eye. Or how the audience does not see an outward sign of Josephine’s ‘radium jaw’ until activist Wiley Stephens (Cara Seymour: American Psycho 2000, Adaptation 2002) explains her concerns about the element causing illness.
Likewise, the film runs at a nice pace, starting off light-hearted before gradually getting more serious. Some of the early scenes would not be amiss in a Romcom, albeit a politically themed one- less Love Actually than Marx Actually. It gets the audience behind King’s Bessie as she goes from a naïve worker to a keen activist as the case goes to court. Though it does not disarm them, as even these meet-cutes plant seeds for the film’s subplots, which come together neatly in the film’s final act.
There are few drawbacks and these mostly come in the editing. Some scenes look a little choppy, swirling Bessie, Josephine and co. with zoetropes and stock footage – the latter also gets used a lot. Sometimes it is used cleverly, weaving it into filmed footage here and there, but it is not a perfect blend as it still sticks out. Luckily, these instances become more infrequent as the film goes along and does not distract from the drama.
Ultimately, Radium Girls is an effective and touching drama about overcoming corruption and systemic hardship. The film is not the most complex legal drama out there yet it is one of the more relatable ones thanks to some good writing and acting, particularly from King’s energetic Bessie and Quinn’s laconic Josephine. It is well worth a watch once it is released. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Radium Girls 4 out of 5 stars.