Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler’s fact-based drama Radium Girls may be set a century in the past, but certain aspects of the story feel as timely as today’s headlines — for instance, when Joey King’s character Bessie bemoans: “Why is there so much wrong in the world that no one knows about?” That feeling of helplessness in the face of events that feel completely out of your control is bound to strike a chord with today’s audiences.
Bessie and her sister, Josephine (Abby Quinn), work for American Radium — a made-up enterprise based on actual the businesses United States Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company. The young women earn pennies for painting watch faces with paint that’s been infused with radium to make it glow in the dark, licking their paintbrush tips between every dab to improve precision. Since it’s the 1920s, when everyone believed radium was a miracle substance that could make people’s lives better in every way, no one questions the notion of ingesting radium — in fact, if anything, they believe it will make them healthier, putting “a glow in their cheeks.”
Of course, as those of us with the benefit of 100 years of hindsight know, what it’s actually doing is poisoning them. When Josephine starts to suffer, losing teeth and developing a rash, the company doctor assures her she’s fine. It’s not until Bessie’s activist love interest introduces the sisters to a woman doctor who’s trying to prove the toxic nature of many common workplace substances, that they realize how dangerous their simple job really is. And it turns out the company realized it, too, but didn’t say a word.
The sisters’ quest for justice makes for a stirring, relatable story — like Norma Rae, they represent those who’ve dared to stand up to authority in the name of protecting the countless women who keep America’s industry running despite sexism and belittlement. King and Quinn both deliver earnest performances; King is particularly convincing as a fun-loving girl who gradually wakes up to the world’s inequity and is determined to do something about it. In that way, she offers a clear connection to so many of today’s young activists. What movies will we be making about their struggles in 100 years? — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Loren King Radium Girls is a revelation; a rich dramatization of the historical events that took place in Orange, NJ in 1927-28. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Brittany Shaw, Radium Girls blends period social drama, courtroom intrigue, labor history and a women’s empowerment message. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Radium Girls the movie is not an adaptation of Kate Moore’s critically acclaimed 2017 nonfiction book The Radium Girls, but it deals with the same subject matter: the plight of the working-class (and mostly immigrant) young women who were watch-dial painters in the 1920s. In the film, the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated documentarian Lydia Dean Pilcher (Cutie and the Boxer) and co-director Ginny Mohler, Joey King (The Act) and Abby Quinn (After the Wedding) play teen Italian American sisters Bessie and Jo Cavallo who work at the Orange, New Jersey American Radium factory. Pilcher and Mohler focus on the young women, particularly Bessie, who begins to campaign against the company after Jo starts to lose teeth. These “shining women” — whose bones will glow for 1,000 years — changed the shape of workers’ protection laws and deserve their rightful place in American’s collective memory. In a country where individuals still struggle against the Goliaths of Industry, this movie is a reminder of what can happen when women refuse to be silenced.
Leslie Combemale 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. Read full review.
Nell Minow: This is a powerful story, sensitively told, Pilcher and Mohler have a gift for conveying the sense of time and place and showing us the perspective of these young women, beautifully performed by Joey King and Abby Quinn.
Jennifer Merin Radium Girls, a truth-base drama directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler, is about heroic working women. Set in the 1920s, the film stars Joey King, Abby Quinn and Cara Seymour as women laborers who exposed the dangers of radium and brought an end to the use of the toxic element in factories producing glow-in-the-dark clock dials. They suffered radium poisoning themselves (their skeletons will glow in the dark for centuries), but they saved the lives of thousands of women co-workers. Think of the heroism recounted in Norma Rae and Made in Dagenham, but in Radium Girls the fight is for women’s lives rather than better work opportunities and wages. It’s an important and inspiring story well told.
Cate Marquis Radium Girls tells the compelling true story of how, in the 1920s, young women factory workers raised the alarm about the dangers of working with radium in jobs painting clock faces with the luminous chemical. The company encouraged workers to lick the brushes they were painting with to produce a finer point for the detailed work, which resulted in the women ingesting enough radium to not only be fatal but to make their bones glow-in-the-dark radioactive for a thousand year. Directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler have assembled a strong cast led by Joey King and Abby Quinn. Use of era footage sets the period tone, establishing the public’s lack of awareness of the dangers of radiation at the time. The drama has a strong female focus and a timeliness that draws indirect parallels to the way cover-ups of industrial and environmental threats still persist. The the drama is often moving and effective thanks to the talented cast, but the film is a bit uneven and doesn’t quite reach the heights it might have. Still, this is such a powerful true subject with a compelling focus on the brave women whose courage resulted in changes in workplace safety that Radium Girls is well worth one’s time for its strengths and its important topic.
MaryAnn Johanson This is one of those stories that I’d heard about, as whispers and rumors, forever: yet another tale of women as disposable cogs upon the trash heaps of toxic capitalism. I wish this movie was better — it’s nowhere near as emotionally engaging as it should be, and it seems like it was such a softball pitch. But it is nevertheless a story that needs to be told, and to be heard, and I’m glad we’ve finally heard it: I do really like the sense of how ‘modern’ the world depicted here feels, even if it was a century ago. It cements the feeling that the story remains incredibly relevant today.
Title: Radium Girls
Directors: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Ginny Mohler
Release Date: April 2020, now postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Running Time: 102 minutes
Screenwriters: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw
Distribution Company: Juno Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin