It was 1925, but it could have been any number of years before The Great Depression. The U.S. was running on fuel, booze, silent comedies, and loud music, as well as this little thing called radium. From the 1910s through the ’20s, American Radium sold glow-in-the-dark wrist-watches made out of (you guessed it!) radium. Workers, mostly women, were exposed to tremendous amounts of radioactive material and were even asked to lick their brushes before painting each watch. When workers began to lose teeth and hair, a handful of them sued the company, which had claimed the substance was “good for the skin.”
In the new film, “Radium Girls,” Joey King plays Bessie, one of two sisters to sue American Radium. Bessie wants to become a Hollywood star, while her sister, Jo (Abby Quinn), aspires to be an archaeologist. Their dreams dissipate when Jo develops concerning symptoms—including a lost tooth— and the company doctor diagnoses her with syphilis, which is impossible. Since Jo is still a virgin, the doctor is either (A) incompetent or (B) lying. You can probably guess which is correct.
If you have ever worked in a toxic environment, “Radium Girls“ hits like an arrow to the heart. There’s a deep sense of familiarity to be found in the rhythms and language of this world, as well as an understanding that Jo and Bessie will have to take matters into their own hands. They receive little help from lawyers and decide to team up with the leader of a local consumer organization (Cara Seymour), who speaks on the horrifying reality of corporate and cultural deception.
“Radium Girls” is a workers’ rights story, the latest in a genre that includes “Silkwood,” “North Country” and “On the Waterfront.” Co-directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler take a similar approach to those classics. They construct a dark, edgy film, a real-life horror show that details the impunity with which American Radium put profits over the harm its chemicals were causing.
The film builds to a court scene in which the testimonies of Jo and Bessie prove crucial, with the help of radium girls, Doris (Colby Minifie), Paula (Olivia Macklin), and Edna (India Ennenga). The case goes all the way to the top. The corporate executives, with their suits and scowls, stand in one corner. The girls in the other. It sounds more cinematic than it is, but the filmmakers spruce it up with the ol’ “based on a true story” treatment.
Yes, the feature does take some liberties. What biopic doesn’t? A romantic subplot is thrown in, with questionable accuracy. We get references to historical events years after they happen—the Red Scare, the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the excavation of King Tut were old news by 1925. But for every misstep there’s a creative flourish, including the use of archival footage through the film, replacing what would be fluff and time-filler with documentary footage. Some of the snippets become thematic motifs: a radium commercial, a woman dancing in the streets. A ticking score lends a sense of urgency to the women’s plight, emphasizing the clock ticking on their lives.
These flourishes, as well as some vibrant compositions from cinematographer Mathieu Plainfosse, breathe life into this otherwise staid telling of Jo and Betsy’s life. Quinn is predictably fantastic as the pale, withering Jo, but King steals the show. It feels as if she’s hiding a lifetime of sorrow under those dark, pillowy eyes—those are eyes of experience, and after two hours of fighting for Jo, they glow with hope and resilience. [B-]
“Radium Girls” is available now in select theaters and virtual cinemas.