You can feel the urgency fueling Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler’s historical drama about a little-known, shameful episode in our country’s past. Despite taking place in the 1920s, Radium Girls feels particularly relevant in these times when the current administration has devoted itself with a passion to rolling back protections for workers. Although its low-budget cinematic execution feels a bit lacking at times, the film fulfills a vital function with its dramatization of an important chapter in America’s history of labor reform.
The story, which features both real-life figures and composite characters, begins in 1925, when sisters Bessie (Joey King, who proved her acting bona fides with her Emmy-nominated turn in Hulu’s The Act) and Jo (Abby Quinn, After the Wedding) are working as “dial painters” at the American Radium Factory in Orange, New Jersey. The two young women — whose older sister, who also worked at the factory, died three years earlier — are part of an all-female workforce earning minuscule wages by painting radium on watch dials to make them glow. They have been instructed to lick the paintbrushes to produce a finer point, a seemingly innocuous habit that, unbeknownst to them, will ultimately prove fatal, as does the propensity of some of them to also paint their faces and nails with radium after work hours.
The film establishes the craze for radium occurring at the time, with scenes showing the substance being promoted as a miracle cure and advertisements for the healing properties of such products as “radioactive water.”
When Jo starts to feel sickly and her teeth begin falling out, the concerned Bessie persuades the factory’s owner (John Bedford Lloyd) to send the company doctor to check her out. The doctor (Neal Huff) promptly diagnoses Jo’s condition as syphilis, despite the fact that she’s a virgin.
As her sister’s condition worsens and other co-workers begin showing symptoms of disease, Bessie — who has become more radicalized as a result of a romantic relationship with a young communist (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) — meets with the female leader of a local consumer organization (Cara Seymour). The latter informs her of the dangers of radium and persuades her to exhume the body of her late sister to prove that she died as a result of their toxic workplace. Jo is told that she probably only has two years to live, while Bessie has only avoided this fate because she had forgone licking the paint brushes that caused her sister’s illness.
The ensuing dispute leads to a court battle in which the testimony of a dying company executive (Scott Shepherd, in a powerful performance) proves crucial in more ways than one. For those not already familiar with the real-life events, suffice it to say that there are many harrowing twists and turns.
Co-directors Pilcher and Mohler, working from a script by Mohler and Brittany Shaw (virtually all of the creative team, which includes executive producers Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, are women), occasionally let the narrative get bogged down. A subplot involving Bessie’s burgeoning friendship with a young Black female photographer (Susan Heyward) feels shoehorned in. The dialogue feels clunky at times. And while there’s effective use of archival footage and photographs, the frequent shifts to black and white are more distracting than atmospheric.
Despite the stylistic glitches, Radium Girls proves engrossing, thanks to its powerful real-life tale and the excellent performances by leads King and Quinn, who make us fully care about their characters’ fates. Onscreen text just before the end credits informs us that radium paint continued to be used until the 1970s, with a chilling final line reminding us of the devastating human toll it took.
Available in theaters and virtual cinemas
Production companies: Cine Mosaic
Distributor: Juno Films
Cast: Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, John Bedford Lloyd, Joe Grifasi
Directors: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Ginny Mohler
Screenwriters: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw
Producers: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Emily McEvoy
Executive producers: Lily Tomlin, Harriet Newman Leve, Jane Wagner, Willette Klausner, Jayne Baron Sherman
Director of photography: Mathieu Plainfosse
Production designer: Emmeline E. Wilks-Dupoise
Editor: Giacomo Ambrosini
Composer: Lillie Rebecca McDonough
Costume designer: Sylvia Grieser
Casting: Anne Davison, Cindy Tolan