Film Review: Radium Girls

STUDIO: Juno Films | DIRECTOR: Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler | CAST: Joey King, Abby Quinn, Colby Minifie, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd
RELEASE DATE: Oct. 23, 2020
SPECS: NR | 102 min. | Drama

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 3Dishes.jpg (40×13)

Based on a true story, Radium Girls is set in 1928 when the highly radioactive chemical element radium was all the rage and believed by many to be an elixir of life. As the drama reminds us, how wrong they were…

Orphaned at a young age and living with their grandfather in Orange, New Jersey, teenage sisters Bessie (Emmy nominee Joey King, The Act) and Jo (Abby Quinn, Black Mirror) support the household by working as dial painters at an American Radium factory which makes glow-in-the-dark watches.

Paid by the dial, Jo is a model employee who dutifully licks her brush after dipping it in the radium paint solution to achieve a finer point, an act instructed by the company. For her part, Bessie dislikes the solution’s aftertaste, so doesn’t partake in the practice, but uses it to paint her finger nails and various designs on her walls.

When Jo begins to experience several alarming health issues, including the loss of a tooth, the company doctor suspiciously passes it off as syphilis. (She insists she’s a virgin, prompting the doctor’s crude reply of “aren’t we all.”) With the help of Wiley (a severely underutilized Cara Seymour of TV’s The Knick) who is a worker’s rights advocate, they find a doctor who gives them the real diagnosis – Jo is suffering from radium poisoning and has just two years to live. Bessie, feeling betrayed by her employer and by radium itself, exclaiming “I thought you were just magic,” rallies a few of her co-workers to file a lawsuit which ultimately leads to a lasting impact in the area of workplace health and safety, as well as the study of radioactivity.

Radium Girls is the latest in a string of corporate malfeasance David vs. Goliath stories like Erin Brockovich, Michael Clayton and, most recently, the excellent Dark Waters. The feature directorial debuts of Oscar nominated producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (Queen of Katwe) and filmmaker Ginny Mohler (Gunslingers), who wrote the script with Brittany Shaw (Garden Death), the film hits many strikingly familiar cords – plebeian victims fighting against a deep pocketed evil corporation, an out-of-their-depth lawyer, a last minute whistleblower – while trying to also capture the battle against the oppression of minorities and the working class. It occasionally succeeds, as the set design and use of archival footage effectively capture the mood and setting of the time. But it could have been strengthened by taking a bit more time to more deeply explore those political themes, especially since all the plaintiffs were women who only recently attained the right to vote.

Handsomely mounted and well-acted, Radium Girls isn’t as compelling as its predecessors in the genre, but it has an earnest quality which makes for satisfying viewing and it imparts an important message during a time in our nation when employees’ rights and corporation regulations continue to erode.

About Janine

Janine is a dedicated fan of the 1940 film Kitty Foyle, directed by Sam Wood, written by Dalton Trumbo and starring Ginger Rogers, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. And seeing that film is all it took to make her a lifelong movie lover. Janine is excited to add her insights to the great team at