In the early 20th century, the discovery of radium and polonium by Marie Curie led to a boom in commercial products that boasted of radioactivity as a phenomenon that was invigorating for the human body. Marjane Satrapi’s biopic of Curie, “Radioactive,” portrayed the scientist’s guilt later in life after countless workers around the world became sick from producing products laced with radium: nail polish, chocolate, face cream, toothpaste. Before the determination of their toxicity, though, these items were part of a bona fide craze, and provided valuable factory jobs to women increasingly joining the work force after the devastation of World War I.
“Radium Girls” transports us to that time: In Orange, New Jersey, in 1925, sisters Josephine (Abby Quinn) and Bessie (Joey King) work for the company American Radium (standing in for the real United States Radium Corporation, which operated from 1914 to 1970). Alongside dozens of other women cramped together in the same room, overseen by stern team leader Mrs. Butkiss (Carol Cadby) and distant factory manager Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), Josephine and Bessie paint the numbers on watch dials. The workers, in their teens and twenties, are given a tiny paint brush and a vial of Undark, a glow-in-the-dark paint made with radium, and encouraged to lick the brush in between each swipe to make their movements more precise. Lick, dip, paint; lick, dip, paint; all these young mothers and daughters and sisters and wives are desperate to keep their jobs, doing whatever their employers want.
Rule follower Josephine, who loyally licks her paint brush, is the factory’s best, producing more than 200 faces per day. At one cent per face, it’s still not much—but her take-home pay is certainly more than Bessie’s daily average of 40. In great chunks of exposition, Ginny Mohler and Brittany Shaw’s script reiterates how the sisters are different: The responsible, no-nonsense Josephine keeps their household running, stepping up after the deaths of their parents and older sister. Co-directors Mohler and Lydia Dean Pilcher emphasize her frowns at a radio their grandfather buys on credit, her frowns as she balances their finances, her frowns when Bessie suggests sneaking back into the factory for a séance. Bessie, meanwhile, is the wild and spontaneous one: She dreams of being an actress, she dares to talk back to Mr. Leech when he questions her work, and she catches the eye of photographer Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a member of the local Communist Party chapter.