DISCLAIMER: Spoilers lie ahead for Juno Films’ Radium Girls. You’ve been warned. Proceed with caution.
Prior to watching Radium Girls, I was aware that it was based on true events. However, I didn’t know the full extent of the story explored therein. I had no idea that these “Radium Girls,” as they were dubbed by the press at the time, existed. The real-life event involved a slew of factory girls in the 1920s who painted watch dials. Back then, radium was all the rage. Radium was “liquid sunshine.” It could cure cancer! It’ll bring an ethereal glow to your cheeks!
Nowadays, hearing the word “radium” is enough to instill a sense of pervasive fear. Some of the women who worked at these factories fell violently ill due to radium poisoning. Why? They were encouraged to lick the brushes they were using to paint these watch dials. Of course, at the time, everyone assumed radium was good for you.
Unfortunately, several died from said radium poisoning. A handful of women decided to take a corporation called Radium Dial Company to task. In 1938, they won. The company was forced to pay any financial damages incurred on behalf of these women for as long as they lived. Their historic victory paved the way for radium to be banned from watches and, well, just about everything. Additionally, it led to better workers compensation and strict radiation regulations for industrial settings.
This brings us to Radium Girls the film. Joey King stars as Bessie, a young woman who’s lost her older sister to radium poisoning that American Radium, the company she works for, claimed was merely “syphilis.” She noticed that an awful lot of deaths at the hands of American Radium were being categorized as syphilis. Now, her other sister, Josephine (Abby Quinn), has fallen ill.
Bessie and Josephine decide that enough is enough. Two other women, Paula (Olivia Macklin) and Doris (Colby Minifie), join the fray in bringing American Radium to justice. Along the way, Bessie learns about social injustice plaguing the world over through her boyfriend’s advocacy group. She meets Etta (Susan Heyward), a Black filmmaker who’s keen on pulling back the veil regarding injustice. Black and white footage of Etta’s filming is spliced between scenes throughout the film. We see 1920s protestors taking to the streets, flaunting signage that condemns police brutality and uplifting a woman’s right to vote with impunity. It feels all too relevant in 2020.
The Radium Girls’ fight to ban radium usage and seek justice is akin to our own battle against COVID-19. The United States’ blatant negligence regarding virus containment is quite similar to American Radium’s handling of the poison cases. Strangely enough, this film was initially released at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, two years prior to the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.
The lesson? Corporate greed will always take precedence over “the little guy.” History is doomed to repeat itself, as it already has. The privileged, like Bessie, are blissfully unaware of the struggles minorities (like Etta) face. Radium Girls‘ lessons are clear and ever present throughout its 102-minute run.
Performance-wise, I wasn’t particularly dazzled. King is always a dependable performer who steps up to the plate. But her performance here isn’t anything to write home about. Quinn’s character was far more intriguing, although she had less screen time and less development. Bessie is really the only character who evolves in Radium Girls. Without the gripping story, I don’t think I’d feel much for the other characters.
Minifie only had a supporting role, but it was a memorable one. Doris is in the late stages of radium poisoning. Her teeth are decaying. Her face is puffy. She can no longer walk without assistance. Yet Minifie injects Doris with an infectious tenacity that shines through the brief time she’s on screen. Heyward proffered a memorable turn as Etta. In fact, I’d be interested to see a spin-off film that centers on her.
The writing leaves something to be desired. While the historical premise itself carries the story somewhat, it gets bogged down by lackluster characters. But I think this was a story that needed to be told, if anything to encourage viewers to research the real Radium Girls’ tale for themselves. The cinematography pales in comparison to other period pieces of note such as Netflix’s Ratched. Although, the moments where we periodically see real footage from the 1920s is more visually enthralling than the actual film. It’s an interesting touch.
Now, there were moments that made me squirm and really raised the stakes. Quinn’s Josephine spits out part of her jaw. Yes, you read that correctly. As the radium seeps into her bones and erodes away her frame, we see her literally break into pieces. There was this impending sense that, inevitably, Josephine would perish by the film’s end.
However, Radium Girls bows out with a bittersweet settlement outside of court. Bessie is dissatisfied because American Radium isn’t going out of business. Radium isn’t banned (at this point). While everyone else is eager to accept a $10,000 settlement and subsequent payment of medical bills, she doesn’t feel like a winner. She’s reminded that real, tangible change takes time. One seemingly miniscule step (and court case) at a time.
The ending felt hastily written. With 12 minutes remaining, I noticed that a resolution seemed far out of reach. Although it appears the writers, Ginny Mohler and Brittany Shaw, sought for historical accuracy. So, there’s that?
Radium Girls was just okay. I don’t think I’ll watch it again, but I do appreciate the film shedding light on a vital part of history. This is a story that needs widespread release among the masses just for the lessons it imparts. It’s a reminder of where we’ve come from as a society that still heavily relies on capitalism to stay afloat. It shows us that not much has changed as far as corporate greed superseding the needs of humankind.
Radium Girls does boast an all-female team — Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner serve as executive producers. Mohler also directed alongside Lydia Dean Pilcher. I’m all for more women taking on roles behind the camera.
Overall, I’d give Radium Girls a gander solely based on historical significance. Watch it to learn about these courageous women who stood tall against a major conglomerate in the name of fair treatment. Then, dive further into the real story.
Radium Girls is currently streaming here and in select theaters.
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