“If you place a Geiger Counter over the grave of a Radium girl, it will click for a thousand years.” This written quote is part of the film Radium Girls, the shocking, fascinating, and well-executed new feature, co-directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler, based on a true story no doubt very few people had heard of, just as I hadn’t.
So few stories like this one make it into the history books, and the heroic work of these young female factory employees, who unwittingly worked themselves to death from radium exposure but held the industry to account before passing, really needs to be told.
The storytelling never veers into Lifetime Movie territory, as it so easily could have given the subject matter. In fact, Radium Girls is consistently compelling, and often quite inventive.
Young actor Joey King heads the cast as Bessie, a 17-year old worker who finds the courage to seek justice for herself and her older sister, as well as the other women falling victim to the greed of the company using them. She leverages, to great effect, both the face of an ingenue, and the experience of a performer who has been working in Hollywood 14 of her 21 years.
It is interesting timing for this film’s release, as it portrays a David and Goliath story, about a fight between those getting sick because big business put monetary concerns over the health of employees, and the truth was suppressed by those in power and in financial control. That certainly resonates in this moment in the US. It’s striking how these women come together, even as their health is deteriorating, so that others that would come after them wouldn’t suffer the same fate. Though it happened nearly 100 years ago, perhaps it’s a lesson we can learn from again, without a metaphoric 1000 years of clicking.