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Film Review: “Radium Girls” Has a Strong Message but Weak Direction

Written by: Hannah Tran | October 22nd, 2020

Film poster: “Radium Girls”

Radium Girls (Ginny Mohler/Lydia Dean Pilcher, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.

“My bones will glow forever,” says Bessie, a teenage dial-painter at the American Radium company in 1920’s New Jersey. She speaks this line to one of the men who quite literally manufactured her and her sister’s looming deaths by lying to them and thousands of other female factory workers about the dangers of the radium they used to make their watches glow. A film about their struggle and about the struggle of workers around the world, Radium Girls is an inspirational look at the endless fight for one’s rights. But while the message contained within the movie is equally beautiful and invigorating, the packaging it’s wrapped in is disappointingly shoddy.

Nearly as soon as Radium Girls begins, its technical and directorial failings become readily apparent. Its unfocused perspective paired with its extremely digital look is a distraction to its underlying intent. It looks and feels much more like television, and the halfhearted attempt at mixing in archival footage from the period and putting cheap film filters onto its own footage only exacerbates the problem. Beyond that, the occasionally confusing editing often suffers from a lack of direction, and nearly a quarter of the sounds and dialogue noticeably sound as if they were recorded in an entirely different setting.

Joey King in RADIUM GIRLS ©Juno Films

With its impressive costume and production design, however, it at least succeeds in immersing you into the atmosphere of the time period. The young cast, furthermore, presents a believable and admirable depiction of the powerful women they are portraying. Joey King (Summer ’03) and Abby Quinn (Landline), as the central sisters, are very accessible, charismatic performers whose opposing levels of affability work well against each other. And although some of the supporting characters often feel insubstantial to their story, the profound interest in the sisters over those around them never feels misplaced.

Beyond being likeable characters, they are also extremely empowering figures. It is impossible to watch the array of strong young women at the heart of Radium Girls who are tirelessly fighting for change in a seemingly unchangeable system and not empathize with their anger, heartbreak and frustration. Although the film does tend to gloss over other major struggles, particularly when it attempts to talk about race, the thorough and shocking story of the “radium girls” relates effortlessly to the universal spirit of rebellion and the fight for liberation still experienced today. While the technical and directorial decisions may feel as if they detract from its time, place and purpose, the pure-intentioned, genuinely moving commentary on the rights of women and workers feels timeless.

l-r: Joey King and Abby Quinn in RADIUM GIRLS ©Juno Films

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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