In the early part of the 20th century, “miracle cures” were all the rage, though no substance captivated Americans quite so much as radium, a mined element that was used in everything from luminescent paints to what was essentially marketed as an early version of an energy drink (one that supposedly cured impotence!). Radium was everywhere, with not just little regard for its inherent radioactive properties and the attendant danger, but even knowledge of how deadly the seemingly wondrous “elixir” really was. Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler’s “Radium Girls” smartly opens with such information on quick display: archival footage and publications tout radium’s properties, while familiar character actor Adam LeFevre appears as a carnival barker selling “the most beneficial of elements” to an eager crowd.
But while consumers might have been hyped up on radium’s alleged wonders, it was another class altogether that paid mightily for its marketing as a household item: the eponymous “radium girls” who worked with the stuff in the United States Radium Corporation’s various factories. Most of them were tasked with hand-painting watch dials, which would “glow in the dark,” thanks to the radium paint, and many of them kept their work sharp by using their mouths to dampen the ends of their radium-soaked brushes. Perhaps you can guess where this is going.
Pilcher and Mohler’s “Radium Girls” follows what happened to one set of workers in 1925 New Jersey with care and respect, though this mostly unknown slice of American history feels oddly inert in its cinematic telling. Focused primarily on sisters Bessie (Joey King) and Jo (Abby Quinn), the film picks up five years after women have finally been granted the right to vote, and the young sisters are still trying to make their own way in the world, complete with jobs at the local American Radium (a tiny name tweak) factory. Bessie is a little more footloose and fancy-free, her painting work not exactly reliable, while Jo is the more studious of the sisters, and a star when it comes to her fast and nearly perfect work.
When Jo starts exhibiting worrying medical issues — the same that plagued their older sister before she passed away two years ago, and diagnosed as syphilis by an uncaring and unkind company doctor — Bessie is forced to face a horrifying reality of corporate and cultural deception. Mohler (who both co-wrote and co-directed the film) and writing partner Brittany Shaw based their central characters on real women — Jo and Bessie are composite stand-ins for real radium girls Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice — and build a wide-ranging screenplay around them as they move from shock and horror into a complex legal battle.
But for all that drama, “Radium Girls” often feels inert, chugging through its paces and necessary factual inclusions, often losing sight of the very real people at its heart. It’s never less than respectful, but so much nuance is lost along the way, particularly as the film begins to lean more on Bessie’s transformation into a rabblerouser (with a generous dash of Communist thinking) rather than Jo’s heartbreaking descent into incurable illness. Other supporting characters, many of them armed with intriguing characters, also fall by the wayside, including Cara Seymour as the crusading Wiley Stephens, Colby Minifie as a former radium girl who retains her good humor even as she wastes away, and Susan Heyward as a budding documentarian.
Pilcher and Mohler also exhibit an odd obsession with layering in archival footage long past the film’s kicky opening, much of it feeling like time-filler and fluff in a film that really doesn’t require it. It’s also not necessary to establish the film’s period bonafides as, despite not having a massive budget to play with, the film’s costumes, hair and makeup, and locations always feel appropriate to its setting (Pilcher’s other 2020 release, “A Call to Spy,” exhibited similar sterling craft work on a small budget).
Once opened up to the truth, Bessie tries her damnedest to get others to believe her, standing outside the factory and screaming her head off at her old coworkers, rejecting a payoff from men literally hidden in shadow, and basically tossing off the kind of naivete King plays so well. Less attention is paid to Quinn, unfortunately, who turns in a quietly heartbreaking performance as the ill-fated Jo, anchoring an often scattered story with restrained ferocity.
The film, like so many others that have arrived during a strange year, feels weirdly timely, thanks to its depictions of civil unrest, cultural deception, corporate malfeasance, media manipulation, and one very compelling mention of the Tulsa race massacre — though that would be enough! — that are all the more impressive when you realize the film was actually made in 2018. Some things, it seems, never change, and even though “Radium Girls” struggles to deliver that message with as fine a point as it should, it’s worth remembering.
Juno Films will release “Radium Girls” in both traditional and virtual theaters on Friday, October 23.
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