When looking at Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler’s Radium Girls, it’s easy to be stuck at a cinematic fork in the road. The film features a cast of delightful up and comers (including Joey King of “The Act”) and is inspired by a true story filled with relevant energy. Yet when examining the final product more closely, there’s something much more uneven beneath the layers of stock footage, vintage aesthetics, and electro-swing remixes. And it’s this kind of jagged filmmaking that comes across more frustrating than any of the unfair cards dealt to our heroines.
Before diving into the movie itself, it’s important to grasp the context in which this story is based upon. Beginning in 1917, United States Radium Corporation operated three factories — including one in Orange, New Jersey. To finish their product at an accelerated rate, the factories hired hundreds of young women to help paint the watch dials. But due to the way they instructed them to lick the harmless brushes, the women began to see life-altering results. From their skin glowing to jaws disintegrating, the supposed “magical” properties of radium were anything but, and these girls were the terrifying examples of its true toxic nature. Yet in an effort to seek retribution, the girls at these various factories would fight in court against the Radium Corporation, yet no genuine conclusion to the story would come about until the mid-70s. And even so, there’s still many unanswered questions.
As for the movie, the story centers around New Jersey sisters, Bessie (King) and Josephine Cavallo (Abby Quinn, “Landline”), who are watch dial painters at (the retitled) American Radium. While Bessie fantasizes about transforming into a Hollywood starlet, Josephine suddenly becomes ill, forcing the pair to discover the deadly truth behind the glowing liquid that funds their lives. Yet as more truths become unearthed, Bessie’s Tinseltown dreams shift to thoughts of justice; risking everything to protect not only the lives of her family and friends, but for the countless workers across the world putting themselves in jeopardy. And no matter what new corporate foes they face, Bessie and the other titular girls aren’t willing to go down without a fight.
Both on and off the screen, the tale of Radium Girls is the classic David vs. Goliath situation. Yet in the case of this project, the focus seems to be more on the accessibility of the story for a wider, younger audience, rather than paying tribute to the actual individuals that were involved. And if you’re the sort of person that gets sucked into a Ryan Murphy mini-series for the glam rather than the grit, you’ll know (or may have no clue) where this movie is going. And similar to Murphy’s recent efforts for Netflix (particularly “Hollywood”), Mohler and Brittany Shaw’s screenplay is filled with the kind of dialog that reads more Tumblr than authentic. It’s wish-fulfillment in the most well-intentioned of ways, yet still feels too heavy-handed to be organic sentences coming from teens of the era.
This choice particularly comes across whenever Mohler and Shaw place Bessie into social situations. From casual hipster-like discussions at parties, to melodramatic cries for justice at the most cringe-worthy of times, the approachable nature of these interactions is borderline laughable. And when adding in Bessie’s fan-girlish mentions of new films, every line comes across as too polished and unbelievable. Sure, there is nothing wrong with showcasing these events in a more palatable manner for a modern crowd, but it begs to wonder (if this story were in much more polished hands) how better the end result would be if it wasn’t.
Luckily, the film has Joey King (“Wish Upon”) — who even in 2018 (when the film was going through its initial festival circuit) had the kind of sparkle inside her to become something special. And as we (and Hulu, along with Netflix) know, she certainly did. With her puppy dog eyes and memorable pout, King swings the attention towards her, no matter where she stands in the frame. She has a raw kind of magic inside that is familiar to Winona Ryder fans of the 90s — for she is relatable as she is beautiful and as heartbreaking as she is enchanting. And regardless of what hokey bit of dialog is written for her on the page, she delivers it with a fire burning within her core.
The rest of the cast does equally well at making the best of what is handed to them. Abby Quinn, Colby Minifie (“Submission”), and Susan Heyward (“Poltergeist”) all leave memorable impressions; each bringing their brand of appeal and vulnerability to their respective roles. But perhaps the greatest surprise is the inclusion of Greg Hildreth (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) as the girl’s lawyer, Henry Barry. An actor who doesn’t get nearly enough fanfare on the Great White Way, Hildreth certainly deserves more film-related opportunities than he’s been given. Here, he exhibits a Jimmy Stewart like quality that (though not given as much screen time as he should) certainly leaves a charming impression.
Similar charm can be found in the work of costume designer Sylvia Grieser and set decorator Heather Yancey. Perhaps some could argue that the visuals on display comes off more sleek than other period dramas, both Grieser and Yancey define the world of Bessie and Josephine with a ModCloth sort of whimsy. Every garment, piece of furniture, and detail in-between is hard not to drool over. And though specific viewers might find this style over accuracy approach to be jarring, considering their small budget, Grieser and Yancey deliver in giving each of the film’s heroines their unique visual aesthetic that is just as courageous as the actions they take.
Ultimately, Radium Girls is the trail mix of indie biopic dramas. It has an inherent sweetness that cannot be denied, but easily as much of an uneven saltiness in-between. Neither flavor compliments the other perfectly throughout the film’s 102-minute runtime. But the elements that do blend nicely stand out in this easily digestible adaptation. And though Pilcher and Mohler’s finished product doesn’t take the same risks as their titular heroines, perhaps this will lead them to make bolder and more confident choices as their careers progress. Because their work can glow, without a drop of radium.