Review by Camden Ferrell
Radium Girls had its premiere in 2018 at the Tribeca Film Festival. It has since played numerous festivals before having its theatrical release delayed due to COVID-19. This film is directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler. While the real-life story had a significant effect on workplace safety, the film isn’t much more than a standard albeit ample courtroom drama.
Bessie and Jo are young women in the 1920’s who work in an American Radium factory where they paint watch dials. Their sister, who previously worked there, died from supposed syphilis. After Jo becomes ill, these girls advocate for safer working conditions and take American Radium to court. This true story is interesting and reveals a lot of the poor conditions at the time, and it had a lot of potential to be a galvanizing film.
The script by Mohler and Brittany Shaw is mostly decent, but a lot of the courtroom scenes feel lackluster and utilizes common tropes of the genre. There are some emotional and tender moments throughout, but it is usually met with some tepid and uninspired scenes that can inflate the runtime a little too much.
The acting in this film is very apt. Joey King (The Act, The Kissing Booth) gives a very commendable leading performance as Bessie. It is a very strong performance in spite of the material, and she is able to convey a wide range of emotions more so than anyone else in the film. Abby Quinn also gives a pretty decent performance as her sister, Jo. While most of the cast is suitable and adequate in their roles, none of them prove to be particularly memorable.
The film’s main faults come in the first half. There is a lot of meandering through its first act until it gets to the film’s inciting incident. There are characters who are given too much screen time, and there are others who aren’t given nearly enough. It comes off as unbalanced, but luckily the film finds somewhat sure footing as the actual trial and deposition starts.
The execution and blocking of the scenes are once again well-done but not particularly impressive. It’s a well-made movie, and while it suffers from its lukewarm treatment, it is still very competent. The cinematography is decent and composed well, and the score is appropriate for the period. There are a lot of parts that work well individually, but it comes off as messy when compiled.
Despite its flaws, this is a movie that tells a story about how young women took on a major corporation in order to secure better working conditions. It’s a testament to the spirit of the worker as well as an empowering story of young women in a period in which they were overlooked. It’s a film that could have been very timely but didn’t necessarily have a strong call to action for modern audiences.
Radium Girls doesn’t do sufficient justice to the real-life subjects, but it is still a mildly effective drama. It features a great leading performance from King and some strong themes, but it ultimately falls flat due to its pacing and script.
Radium Girls will be available in select theaters and virtual cinemas October 23. Participating theaters can be found here.