Watching Resolution: Radium Girls (2018)

5. A film based on a true story: Radium Girls (2018)

List Progress: 8/12

Work safety regulations are written in blood. In the 1920’s, factory workers, mostly young women, were employed to paint watch faces with glow in the dark paint. The expected practice was to lick the tip of their brush to make a fine point, dip it in the paint, paint a number on the watch face, and put it back in their mouth to start again; “lip, dip, paint” was the motto. But that was all supposedly fine, because the paint was made of the popular wonder substance, cure-all and modern day miracle, radium.

2018’s film Radium Girls is a fictionalized account of the real life Radium Girls, the young women who took their employers to court over the radiation poisoning they suffered at their hands. None of the real women are named (the company is even renamed from the United States Radium Corporation to American Radium), and a spunky pair of sisters is invented to man the charge. I am biased because I have seen the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, an ensemble piece around the same story, and I think focusing so much on a single protagonist weakens the communal nature of the story. These women were factory workers, seen as little more than pieces of machinery, and it took many of them making themselves known and vulnerable to get anything done. But lead character Bessie Cavallo is interesting enough, if not quite as layered as she could be when played by actress Joey King.

The film also has a strange sense of how to incorporate its 1920’s setting, with bits of stock footage and black and white film excerpts jammed in between scene transitions. For an otherwise straight-faced drama, it is a strange stylistic choice and more than a little jarring. 

Speaking of jarring, this is not a film for anyone with a squeamishness about teeth; radium necrosis in people who have been eating radioactive material for years is not a pretty sight. One of the most effective bits of cruel irony is that Bessie is relatively fine, since she disliked the aftertaste of radium and took the longer route of pointing her paintbrush against the rim of the bottle. Her responsible older sister sees it as childish and stubborn, when they get paid by the watch and are barely making ends meet, but this pettishness is what saves her.

Radium Girls is effective enough, and it’s an important story about a landmark case in labor rights history. But there are just enough adjustments changes that could have been made to really make this film (pardon the pun) shine.

Would I Recommend It: Eh, it’s okay. But do see These Shining Lives.

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