Radium Girls, 2018.
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler.
Starring Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Olivia Macklin, Neal Huff, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, John Bedford Lloyd, Susan Heyward, Joe Grifasi, Brandon Gill, Colby Minifie, Veanne Cox, Greg Hildreth, Gina Piersanti, Juliana Sass, Carol Cadby, and Steven Hauck.
Based on true events, when her sister is diagnosed with radium necrosis, Bessie grapples with holding their employers responsible.
No one thinks putting glow in the dark stickers on their ceiling is going to kill them. Bessie (Joey King) probably felt the same way when she painted stars on hers, except the reason her paint glowed is because it had radium in it.
While there are plenty of bigger moments you could point to in Radium Girls to show how little has changed in the world since the 1920s, few perhaps better illustrate how innocent radium was supposed to be and what it took for the Radium Girls to say it was harmful. The impulse to buy glow in the dark products is still there but the health effects couldn’t be more different, and it’s not just that radium wasn’t seen as a threat. The very first scene in Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler’s movie (after some archival footage of girls dancing) is of a man hawking radioactive water like it’s some magical elixir. Radium was supposed to be a cure-all for illness. That’s how it was presented to the public anyway, and why would anyone think otherwise?
Radium Girls is about a group of factory workers in New Jersey who stood up to American Radium and tried to get them to admit they knew radium was dangerous. Bessie and her sister, Jo (Abby Quinn), work at a dial painting factory. For every dial painted they earn 1¢ and it’s quicker, and comes out better, if you lick your brush. Bessie doesn’t like the aftertaste, though, so she usually gets paid less.
When Jo starts to feel sick, the company doctor says she has syphilis, something Jo and Bessie know isn’t true. Proving it, however, will take them building a lawsuit and being willing to look into the death of their older sister, Mary, who worked in the factory, too.
It’s a huge story and anyone interested in the history behind the Radium Girls should definitely check this movie out. Like The Trial of the Chicago 7 (which recently dropped on Netflix), Mohler and Brittney Shaw’s screenplay is able to consider the case from multiple angles and is especially good at showing the different pressures the girls were under. If the villains sometimes sound cartoonish, that doesn’t make them any less threatening and while Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) is introduced as a potential love interest for Bessie, his main contribution is to expose Bessie to social injustice. She’s the one who rallies and decides to fight, as King imbues her with a guileless spirit.
While watching films like Radium Girls it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. American Radium wasn’t the only company to subject their workers to unsafe working environments and when Bessie mentions wanting to apply for another job, it’s a wake-up call, as she’s realizes how many other companies are guilty of similar practices. If Radium Girls isn’t able to cover those other movements in depth, the film at least tries to acknowledge them.
The war for safer workplace conditions doesn’t end with the Radium Girls but it’s an important battle to remember, especially as one where women led the charge and suffered the most.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★