It is no secret that Americans are living in a politically-charged time. Full of secrets, scandals, and even outright corruption, it becomes almost compulsory to wonder if American society has always been riddled with such messy policies. Enter Radium Girls, a film providing a glimpse into the lives of Americans in the mid 1920s that also had its fair share of crooked practices.
Based on true events, Radium Girls tells the story of sisters Bessie (Joey King) and Josephine Cavallo (Abby Quinn) as they learn about how the Radium they work with while painting wrist watch dials each day at the American Radium company has slowly been poisoning them — while their employers knowledgeable of the material’s danger take no responsibility for the lifelong damage it causes. Upon Josephine falling mysteriously ill, the story follows Bessie as she takes a stand against the evil company and society that were allowed to cause such harm to so many women in the interest of capital gain. The film does well in exploring subjects of sexism, exploitation of power within large businesses and the government, and even the demonization of unconventional political beliefs, but ultimately fails to make a truly moving story of these themes.
It is in the details where the potential of this film is not met. One such detail is the lack of continuity in the portrayal of a passage of time. At some points a date is shown in a corner of the screen to show when a scene is occurring (as the story takes place over several years). At other moments simple cuts make up varying amounts of hours or days in between events. And at some of the most confusing moments, black and white film reels break up scenes. The reels vary in content, some showing Roaring Twenties-esque scenes such as big bands and flappers. Others show protests reflecting growing unrest among the public regarding various social issues. Still others show vague, eerie images of Radium being used in everyday American life in an attempt to create a shock factor towards how a dangerous radioactive material could be so commonplace at one time. All of these methods could have been successful in showing a change of time, yet the haphazard combination of them makes the scene changes confusing interruptions rather than smooth transitions.
Other details that lessen the cinematic value of the film include the poor choices of camera angles and lighting. The viewer is forced to watch intense conversations from afar instead of up close and in the middle of the action. There are the occasional creative framing choices where a close up shows a character’s vulnerability or raw emotion, but these are so few and far between that when such an angle is employed it feels out of place and awkward. There are also few changes in lighting, which amount to giving the film a bit of a monotonous mood. What is disappointing about the lack of lighting variation is how the film had so many opportunities to experiment with contrast and different coloring throughout the several changes of setting and the uses of flashback scenes. Yet, it continues to maintain the same lighting in almost every scene. For example, the courtroom that represents the culmination of years of women suffering under neglectful employers has the same clear and bright lighting as the lake setting where Bessie and Josephine go to escape from the turmoil of their routine lives.
The score is perhaps the most confusing element of the film. It switches between styles, but doesn’t fully commit to any of them. The beginning of the film has an impressive arrangement of ticking sounds mixed with an eerie piano melody, representing the watch faces which the women paint. It crescendos to suggest that these clocks are not merely a part of the workplace, but rather a catalyst for the journey which these women are about to take. It would have been enticing to hear the ticking noise become a motif throughout the film, but it is only in the opening scene that this creative use of sound appears. Unfortunately, the opening melody is not followed with musical decisions of the same caliber. Later scenes of the film feature a fusion of modern bass-blaring music with 1920s jazz. Had the film stuck with only the latter of the two styles (as it does in other scenes featuring jazz arrangements), this music would not stick out like a sore thumb. Instead, each arrangement of melodies works somewhat well alone, but in conjunction with the rest of the film feels frustratingly choppy.
Yet all of these minor issues are overshadowed by Radium Girls’ greatest caveat: its writing. This film undertook difficult themes to discuss and puts a commendable effort into showing the monumental awakening of Bessie as she goes from a naive aspiring actress to an activist refusing to be complacent towards injustices occurring against common people, especially women. That being said, Bessie’s journey could have been much more powerful and the themes more profound had there been cleaner writing.
Some characters, such as Bessie’s love interest Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), fail to become more than one-dimensional objects that move the plot along. Walt sparks an interest in Bessie because of his distrust of the status-quo (and his enticing interest in the Communist Party). He brings her to question her belief system of what American society values and how big of a role greed plays in these values. However, his character is given so few lines to fully capture that rebellious, almost inspirational spirit, that the scenes between Walt and Bessie become annoyingly predictable: Bessie and Walt are in conversation. Bessie makes a comment revealing her ignorance towards the way the government and world around her operate. Walt brings up a vague point Bessie never considered before. The conversation ends. Right at the moment when Bessie could have had a more powerful revelation, either with or without Walt physically present, she is whisked away into another scene, one that is often irrelevant to the previous conversation.
At moments where Bessie does experience these crucial moments of understanding or personal breakthroughs, she does so with poorly written lines to explain her feelings. In one scene she dramatically exclaims, “Why is there so much wrong in the world that people don’t know about?” While this is a central point of the movie, this line is exactly the question that the scene and film should collectively pose, not something that should be blurted out hastily by a character.
Aside from the questionable artistic and directional decisions, the movie does shine in other areas. The costumes and hairstyles appropriately reflect the time period and simultaneously show each character’s personality. Bessie, the bolder and more outgoing of the sisters, tends to impersonate the flapper style with her dresses and short, curled hair. Meanwhile Josephine, more reserved, is also seen in dresses, but more modest ones accompanied with a cardigan. In terms of set design, the Cavallo home where many significant scenes take place is decorated charmingly to fit the time period. The Cavallo sisters and their grandfather live humbly without enough money to afford a particularly lavish looking house, but the details including pictures of loved ones adorning the walls and the colorful wallpapers and blankets fill the space with a sense of warmth and comfort.
What saves the movie overall is the mostly successful acting. Abby Quinn shines in the role of Josephine as she masterfully portrays the character’s quiet wisdom, showing but not explicitly telling just how much Josephine has had to endure in her life. Although she may seem detached at times, it slowly becomes clear that Josephine has experienced both physical and emotional pain of a greater threshold than perhaps any of the other characters and hides it well. Joey King also does well in portraying Bessie, or as well as she can given the cheesy and awkward lines she had to deliver at certain scenes. She gives the character the right balance between loving sister and determined dissident of the unchecked power money holds over her world.
Perhaps one of the best performances surprisingly comes from secondary character Doris (Colby Minifie). Doris worked with Josephine and Bessie at American Radium until she too fell ill of a “mysterious” cause. When the case of the Radium Girls makes it to court, Doris gives an incredibly moving testimony reciting, “Dip, lick, paint,” the motto of the factory workers as they dip their brushes in Radium paint, lick the brush to make the tip fine, and paint Radium onto the watch face. Her lines are hauntingly simple, powerfully expressing the years of pain and unacknowledged suffering she had to endure before finally having the chance to speak out. It is her testimony that finally brings to reality the objectification these women faced as merely necessary losses in the pursuit of keeping a business running.
Overall, Radium Girls is flawed, yes. Yet its moving messages and overarching themes of sisterhood and fighting to be heard give the film enough emotion to be memorable. It opens the door to further pondering and discussing not simply what injustices we can observe, but how we can speak up as well. The Radium Girls of the film and the history books began a movement towards improved workers rights and conditions. They push us to question how we can further improve our flawed systems and perhaps start a movement of our own.
Elizabeth Dyer is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl