Radium Girls

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Radium Girls Movie Poster Image
Inspiring real-life labor drama has intense moments.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 103 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Power exists in unity. Achieving justice is more than taking a settlement, it's seeking to stop further negligent actions for the sake of others. Serves as an important reminder of careless corporate actions of the past to help ensure it doesn't happen again. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Led by courage and moral outrage of a 17-year-old, female factory workers in 1920s bravely speak out and persevere to take legal action against rich, powerful corporate men. Black and White activists work together to overcome racism and injustice, but story is centered on a White woman's experience. Shows women in professions and roles that might be surprising for the time: legal organizer, scientist, powerful medical investigator, etc.

Violence

Real footage of 1920s protests shows police brutality. Characters receive threats, including a brick thrown through a window. Disturbing effects of radiation poisoning include a character's disintegrating jaw falling out of their mouth in a bloody mess of bone and tissue. Mention of government destruction of property against people of color. Accusations of venereal disease in an effort to shame women.

Sex

A teen girl tells her date she won't have sex with him. A young woman is shown in the bath on a couple of occasions, no sensitive parts exposed.

Language

"Whores" seen in context of a threat. 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pipe smoking. Characters hold glasses at a New Year's Eve party; it's unclear what's in them. A sick character drinks what's implied to be some sort of elixir; conversation about "radium water," an actual elixir from the 1920s that was touted as having health benefits.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Radium Girls is an inspiring coming-of-age drama set in the 1920s and executive-produced by Lily Tomlin. It's based on shocking real events that led to government regulations to protect U.S. workers. When trusting 17-year-old main character Bessie (Joey King) realizes that her sister's mysterious illness might be related to toxic materials at work, she sets out to fight a powerful system that prioritizes profits over people. The film reflects what happened in real life: Doctors were paid off to tell the girls they were suffering from syphilis, rather than radiation poisoning, to shame them into silence. It's an intersectionally feminist story in that it's about a range of women -- low-income laborers, Harvard professors, scientists, and legal counselors -- banding together to make change. A subplot shows Black and White activists working together for racial unity, but the story centers on a White woman's experience. Real footage from the 1920s is used to show marches that echo contemporary issues, including demands for equal rights and to abolish the police (there's a clip of a cop swinging his baton at protestors). There are also disturbing scenes of a young woman's teeth and jaw falling out due to radiation poisoning. While it's never stated in the movie, the film was created as a warning that similar horrors could recur due to the many EPA regulations and labor laws rolled back under the Trump Administration.

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What's the story?

Based on real events (with characters based on several real-life people), RADIUM GIRLS centers on sisters Bessie (Joey King) and Jo (Abby Quinn), who work at American Radium painting glow-in-the-dark marks on watches and clocks with radium paint. When Jo starts losing teeth and showing other alarming, unexplainable symptoms, the girls discover that radium -- which has been touted worldwide as a miracle cure -- may actually be the cause. Joining forces with their co-workers and the National Consumer League, the sisters take legal action to advocate for worker protections.

Is it any good?

With the words "teen" and "activist" becoming increasingly synonymous, this historical drama is incredibly relevant and feels made to appeal to and encourage today's passionate youths. News stories about young U.S. female factory workers' legal battle against the rich, powerful heads of United States Radium Corporation (renamed "American Radium" in the film) have been largely forgotten, but the tale is worth remembering lest it repeat itself. Young women who were hired to paint glow-in-the-dark marks on time pieces using radioactive paint were instructed to create a fine point by putting the tips of their just-dipped brushes in their mouth. We now know that radium can cause debilitating health conditions, but it's sobering to be reminded that, at the time Radium Girls takes place, the substance was being hawked as a health elixir and put in beauty products and makeup to help create a "glow" in users. Teens may be able to make the connection: Which current "safe" or "healthy" products might later be shown to actually cause harm?

The movie's historical perspective is bolstered by vintage footage from the time -- including film snippets of movie star Rudolph Valentino and other cultural moments, as well as news reel clips of political marches for equality and unity. The protests involve issues that are still unresolved -- and still drawing people to the streets -- a century later (yes, they had signs reading "abolish the police" in the 1920s). While the movie's script isn't exactly groundbreaking, it's certainly effective. And, it should be noted, the outdoor cinematography is indeed radiant. Most importantly, 17-year-old Bessie's path to activism may encourage young viewers that justice can be achieved, that regular people can take down a giant via teamwork. That's a message we can't get enough of these days.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the fact that Radium Girls is based on true events. Do you think the same thing could happen today? How accurate do you think the story is compared to what actually happened? Why might filmmakers tweak the facts in real-life stories?

  • Describe the different ways that the film shows people prioritizing making money over health. How does that demonstrate why regulations are necessary to ensure worker safety? Do you think that if they're left to self-regulate, corporations will do the right thing by their employees or the public?

  • Can you think of a time when you stood up and fought for something you believed in even if it was scary? What are some things you value and might find yourself willing to protect? Why is it important to speak up if you see something wrong?

  • What elements of the movie reflect our world today? Do you think the filmmakers want you to see the connection? Why do you think they included footage of real protests and events of the 1920s?

  • How does Bessie demonstrate courage and perseverance? In what ways do we see teamwork? How does the story reflect a greater league of women working together to achieve important structural change? Do you feel inspired by the actions of the Radium Girls?

Movie details

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