In the 1920s, when radium was advertised as a luminous substance with health benefits, two teenage sisters make ends meet working at New Jersey’s American Radium Factory. Bessie (Joey King) wants to be a Hollywood star, while Jo (Abby Quinn) aspires to become an archaeologist, but for now, they’re on a factory line where girls paint the tiny radioactive faces of glow-in-the-dark watches, repeatedly licking their brushes to a point.
Their dreams quickly shatter when Jo develops concerning symptoms — including losing a tooth — and the sisters learn about a group that believes radium is toxic and exposure can be fatal. This realization coincides with Bessie’s budding romance with a Communist and her own radicalization, as she becomes aware of capitalist greed trumping employees’ safety.
A worthy entry in the category of workers’ rights movies, “Radium Girls,” like “Silkwood,” is based on actual events. In it, the directors Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler reveal a little-known part of history with a loudly beating feminist heart and a narrative grounded in reality.
The script, by Mohler and Brittany Shaw, tends to be overtly formulaic, but the emotional resonance of the two leads carries this movie. King is especially alluring as her head-in-the-clouds teen must quickly learn to ground herself. Bessie, who evades poisoning thanks to her aversion to licking the paintbrushes, fuels a rebellion against the company on behalf of her sister and the other workers. “Radium Girls” becomes a riveting courtroom drama as Bessie presents damning evidence. Her battle is inspiring but not without realistic consequences: The film’s directors understand that when a teenage girl confronts corporate cover-ups, even the triumphs come with sacrifices.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters and virtual cinemas. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.