Radium Girls, 2020.
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.
In the 1920s a group of factory workers advocate for safer work conditions after some of their colleagues become ill from radium exposure.
Lydia Dean Pilcher is clearly determined to tell as many historical stories of unsung female trailblazers as possible, which is unquestionably an admirable effort. The end results, however, have unfortunately been less than impressive as they bottle up fascinating characters into the confines of traditional and stale biopics seemingly intended to educate and inform rather than serve as an engaging work of art. Radium Girls is technically the filmmaker’s narrative directorial debut (although she did co-direct alongside first-time screenwriter and director Ginny Mohler) as it premiered over two years ago at film festivals, giving her enough time to film and get the recently released Call to Spy out on VOD. It’s also easy to see why a project like Radium Girls sat on the shelf struggling to find distribution, considering it’s unremarkable in every way but also not outright bad (if it was awful there might be interest in seeing how and why); it’s hard to imagine anyone actually purchasing this factoring in that you could most likely get the whole story from Wikipedia in five minutes.
Taking place in the mid-1920s following Marie Curie’s breakthrough discovery of radium (coincidentally, she also had her own stuffy biopic earlier this year and was portrayed by Rosamund Pike), the story centers on sisters Bessie and Josephine (Joey King and Abby Quinn respectively) living with their unfit for work grandfather end serving as the breadwinners of the household working for American Radium. Inside the factory, they apply radium paint (recommended being licked for speedier efficiency) to dials. In what turns out to be a wise move, Bessie chooses to go or her own pace and not deal with the gross tasting toxin whereas her sister Josephine is a hard-working employee of the month girl that has consumed three years worth of the stuff. Naturally, she comes down with illnesses that are unknown to the general public and falsely treated as syphilis.
Like most major discoveries, radium became used for things that shouldn’t have been whether its peddlers had scientific knowledge or were flat out liars selling it as a miracle elixir (there is some opening footage showing these merchants basically as snake oil salesmen from the Old West, and the speeches are unsettling to listen to). However, the cash flow was undeniable so companies like American Radium didn’t care that they were endangering the lives of its factory girls, bribing whoever they could to suppress the truth.
Josephine comes down with a case of “syphilis” and is given approximately two years to live, which conveniently coincides with Bessie making some of her own personal discoveries about their deceased older sister Mary and her connection to a former high up employee that was warning her about the dangers of radium. This would be enough to spring Bessie into taking legal action, but Radium Girls also can’t help shoehorning in a number of subplots ranging from a political activist boyfriend, her dreams of becoming a Hollywood star (which obviously becomes less of a priority), Black experiences of the time (a Block female photographer that seems to exist just as a way to justify inserting more archival footage than necessary), and her encyclopedic wisdom when it comes to Egyptian mythology, namely the Goddess of Truth Maat. That last one sort of becomes relevant considering the film quickly becomes a bland courtroom drama where Bessie is surrounded by liars. Whether this interesting factoid about her personality is real or not, it always feels like a half-baked juxtaposition amounting to the occasional amateurish and cringe-worthy piece of dialogue.
The strengths are within the sisterly bond between Bessie and Josephine (Joey King and Abby Quinn are gifted performers capable of selling that care for one another and the tough love that comes with their sometimes opposing viewpoints on how to proceed forward), and of course, the plethora of young women inspired to come forward regarding their medical troubles as a result of exposure to radium. The toll taken on their bodies, mainly in their facial structure, is realized with terrific makeup effects, even if it does feel like we are seeing a watered-down version of the damage. These are the supporting characters that deserved more attention, rather than a purposeless messy look at Bessie’s life and a low-effort look at how the events around her alter her beliefs. Not to mention, some scenes are so short and pointless it’s hard to tell what was meant to be accomplished.
There is so much promise within the story Radium Girls wants to tell that it’s actually frustrating it can’t capitalize on the aspects that work. These are real-life people and courtroom battles that deserve their history told, but with energy and outrage and concise direction. If nothing else, I’m grateful that Lydia Dean Pilcher is spreading awareness of noteworthy and underappreciated female heroes, so here’s hoping that she learns from mistakes and perhaps partners up with better screenwriters in the future. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before she does get one of these biopics right, as both of them so far are peppered with some great ingredients. Radium Girls is not so much a bore, but more of a scattershot missed opportunity to tell an important story.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com