Radium Girls (2020)

Image: Juno Films

Review

RADIUM GIRLS (2020)

Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Collin-Kelly Sordelet, John Bedford Lloyd, Joe Grifasi

Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler

Can you believe in the 1920s people used to drink radium dissolved in water as an energy drink? It was marketed as a cure for impotence and other ailments and sold for about a buck which would be around $20 now when you factor in inflation. The dangers of the radioactive element were underplayed especially by a New Jersey company that manufactured luminous gauges and watches for the military using radioactive paint. Many of the women working in the plant suffered from contamination and some lost their lives. They became known as the Radium Girls and this is their story.

At one-point radium was believed to be the miracle cure of the 20th century, as seen in the Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive” starring Rosamund Pike which was released earlier this year and moved to Amazon Prime Video after the pandemic shut down theaters in March.

“Radium Girls” opens in 1925 New Jersey, as sisters Bessie (Joey King) and Jo (Abby Quinn) work as dial painters for the American Radium Factory which manufactures glow-in-the-dark watch dials for troops serving in WWI. Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), the plant’s foreman, is notorious for docking Bessie’s pay because she refuses to lick the paintbrush to create a fine point needed to accurately paint the numbers on the dials. Her work looks sloppy while Jo, on the other hand, is one of the company’s best performers.

The girls working at the factory have no idea the luminous paint is toxic; in fact, they are rewarded with a bottle of radium water as a bonus for being the hardest worker. This may explain why Jo’s teeth have begun to fall out and why Bessie remains healthy after refusing to lick her brush, citing the paint’s bad aftertaste. The girls were unaware of radium’s danger and when some of them began to die — include Bessie and Jo’s older sister — the company blamed their deaths on syphilis. It’s the same diagnosis given to Jo by AMF’s Dr. Flint (Neal Huff) which sends up a red flag with the sisters since Jo is a virgin.

Based on a true story, the idea for the film came about when co-director Ginny Mohler and her colleague and the film’s co-writer Brit Shaw stumbled upon the story while doing research on another project for the History Channel. This led to archival footage from the actual Radium Girls that is seen interspersed throughout the film. It’s a fascinating story that captivates the viewer as the truth begins to surface when several of the girls file a lawsuit against the company.

The supporting cast features Collin Kelly Sordelet as a communist reporter named Walt who befriends Bessie and steers her towards consumer advocate Wiley Stephans (Cara Seymour). She warns the sisters of American Radium Factory’s coverup and convinces them to sue the company in order to expose their deceit and the dangers of radium to the world. The Radium Girls plight is documented by Oklahoma journalist Etta (Susan Heyward), an activist whose family’s photography store was destroyed during the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.

“Radium Girls” features solid performances by the cast as first-time feature directors Pilcher and Mohler blend fact with fictional characters to bring the enlightening story to the screen.

(3 stars)

Opens Friday, November 6 at the Landmark River Oaks (Houston)

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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