Something I’m seeing more and more of as the pandemic continues to make it impossible or unlikely for an array of new movies to open in physical theaters are films from 2019 or even earlier getting a second shot at distribution. Case in point: Radium Girls, a film that debuted at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and has floated through the festival circuit for the following year without getting a distributor until early this year. It was set for release in April, a full two years after its premiere, and was pushed back for obvious reasons until now, getting a limited theatrical release (and is also available to stream). Some of these works don’t actually deserve a new lease on life, but a rare few actually do, especially in the crowded world of independent horror. Radium Girls does indeed tell a horrific true story, but in a way that makes every moment seem manufactured and disingenuous.
In the 1920s, and in the wake of Marie Curie’s seemingly landmark discoveries on radioactivity, a company called American Uranium manufactured, among other things, pocket watches with glow-in-the dark dials, made that way thanks to women working in factories across the country who hand painted the watch faces with uranium-infused paint. To make the paint brushes paint the fine lines required, the women would often dip their brushes in the paint and lick them to make the bristles pointy, thus introducing radioactive materials directly into their bodies. It didn’t take long for these women to exhibit signs of radiation poisoning, especially in their jaws and faces. Their teeth would fall out, their jaw bones would honeycomb and break, and burn-like marks would appear on their skin. And it is said that if you wave a Geiger Counter over the grave of any of these “Radium Girls,” it would show radiation emanating from them for 1000 years, at least.
Radium Girls tell the story of sisters Bessie (Joey King) and Josephine (Abbey Quinn), both of whom work at such a factory in New Jersey; their older sister died of this illness without anyone knowing it since the “doctor” hired by the company when she got sick diagnosed her with syphilis, as he did all the women who came down with symptoms. The thinking by the company was that no respectable woman would want to let anyone else know that she had an STD and would keep her mouth shut. But when Jo gets sick and her teeth begin to fall out, she and Bessie refuse to let this simply go away.
The story of these women who ended up suing the company is one of the worthiest I can think of, and it absolutely deserves to be told in some form. Marking the feature directorial debut of Academy-Award nominated producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and writer Ginny Mohler, who wrote the script with Brittany Shaw, Radium Girls feels strangely manufactured. The stakes aren’t ever quite clear, especially in an era when simply leaving one’s job was never an option and defying a big company with endless resources was unheard of. This case was an early example of a company attempting to drag out the court proceedings so that some of the sick women might die before the case could be decided. The portrayals of American Radium owner Arthur Roeder (John Bedford Lloyd) or shift supervisor and radium paint creator Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd) are far too one-dimensional to make them the slightest bit interesting, even though Leech apparently had a secret relationship with the late sister.
The film gets tied up in the women’s suffrage movement, the story of a Black female photographer who sets out to capture the Radium Girls’ story, and even Bessie’s own dreams of moving to California to become a star, all of which are fine subplots of their own, but they distract from the immediacy of these life-and-death struggles that should always be at the center of this movie. Quinn’s performance is easily the strongest, which is surprising since King is such a powerful actor in most things. But Bessie’s personal disappointments don’t hold a candle to what’s going on around her. Since it wasn’t her usual practice to put the paint brushes in her mouth, she doesn’t appear to be sick, even though she’s undoubtedly been radiated.
I have no idea how much of the individual stories are true or not—the film doesn’t indicate one way or the other—but if so much of the character building rings false, it injures the film that surrounds it. Radium Girls is a textbook example of a missed opportunity to tell such a worthy story, and a huge disappointment as a film, nonfictional or otherwise.
The film opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and via VOD. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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