Radium Girls Movie Review: A Moving Real-Life Struggle to Effect Workplace Change

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In theaters and streaming this Friday, you can catch Radium Girls, starring Joey King (Emmy nominated for her role in The Act) and Abby Quinn (Mad About You).

It's a dramatic story based on true events that occurred in 1928, when people were still starved for miracle cures and needed work more than safety provided at their place of employment.

Bessie and Jo are teenage girls working hard with a lot of others just like them at the American Radium Company. They've already lost their sister, who worked their as well.

Radium Girls Poster

When Jo loses a tooth, a mysterious disease begins to unravel their lives as they realize the truth about the American Radium Company and the peril they've been under painting glow-in-the-dark watch dials by hand, upward of 200 per day per person.

This is a time in our country and our world that I haven't spent a lot of time exploring, and this story, which led to lasting changes in workplace safety, shows that there is a lot to learn by spending a little time here.

It won't be spoiling the experience to reveal that working at American Radium meant the employees, primarily young women, were exposed to radioactivity.

What's really surprising is how little was known about it at a time they had embraced its healing qualities and practical uses, such as the glow-in-the-dark capabilities that could be used by soldiers to tell time during war.

Bessie and Jo

Getting as many watch faces as you could done during the day was imperative for a watch painter, as they were paid only one cent per completed piece. The trick they learned to achieve their goal was to insert the brush into the radiated paint, run it through their lips, and then paint with the nice, fresh point.

Ingesting the amount of radium they were subjected to was highly dangerous and led to the deaths of many.

But before you think that it's as cut and dry as not using radioactive materials, you need to know that Marie Curie discovered radiation could cure cancer, and that led to less educated people jumping on its curative qualities, which, frankly, didn't exist.

Radium Girls follows the story of young women in failing health who rise up against the American Radium Factory, exposing their lies in the hope that others wouldn't fall prey to the same practice.

Radium Girls at Work

King's Bessie is a young woman with a big heart and dreams of escaping her small town existence. She prays to an Egyptian Goddess of truth that she wears around her neck signaling the virtue she holds most dear.

Her flights of fancy are frowned upon by her grandfather and her sister, Bessie (Quinn), but it's her heart of gold that sets her on the path to right the wrongs they're suffering from working at American Radium Factory.

Radium Girls uses the social causes of the time wisely, linking Jo with a young man she fancies, Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) who belongs to a radical political group and his friend, Etta (Susan Heyward), a photographer.

By attending some Communist meetings with him, Joe begins to see the power of speaking up and standing firm in your beliefs. She's pure and unfettered by judgment, which allows her to embrace the way her new friends conduct themselves even if she never outwardly admits to the same beliefs.

Radium Girls Painting

Etta and Walt are boots on the ground anarchists, which doesn't exactly come into play with the overarching story of the radium girls, but it plays well in 2020 as it brushes against police brutality of the time, reminding us that the right for equal treatment by our protectors has a very long history.

As a big fan of documentaries, I like to imagine movies inspired by real stories on that basis. Does Radium Girls represent the spirit of the story? Would the real radium girls feel they've been well represented in that story?

In both instances, I have to say yes. King and Quinn are brimming with all of the pathos of young women struggling to make ends meet while still imagining a future in which that struggle won't be so hard.

When they come to the realization that they're in the midst of a battle for their very lives, they set about making a difference so others don't suffer in the same way.

Radium Girls Court

I'd like to believe that the real women who fought this battle would find a little piece of themselves in the sisters and all of the other women who eventually stand with them to fight American Radium in a court battle.

Colby Minifie also stars as one of the radium girls who was friends with Jo and Bessie's older, now deceased sister.

You know Minifie from The Boys, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Fear the Walking Dead, and she's a strong addition to this cast, offering a little perspective for doing the right thing when it initially seems do difficult to Jo and Bessie.

Radium Girls will send you on an internet adventure because you can tell that there is so much left unsaid in the movie. When the credits roll, there is an addendum of just how long American Radium continued its business after being called to the carpet, and it's rather incredible.

Radium Girls 4

What the radium girls suffered in real life far exceeds what you'll see in the movie, as it focuses more on the dramatic aspects than the horrific deformities the women suffered. But it's true that if you walked over any of their graves today with a Geiger counter, it would spring into action.

It's a story so hard to believe in 2020, which makes it all the more compelling because of how much these women did to affect our workplace environments.

The fight for justice isn't an easy battle, and sometimes it takes several lifetimes to achieve the desired results. Radium Girls features strong women standing up for what they believe, using their voices to effect lasting change. It's inspirational and worth the watch.

Radium Girls is in select theaters and virtual cinemas beginning Friday, October 23.


Editor Rating: 4.25 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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