“Radio” may be as predictable as a Hallmark card, but it is as heartwarming, too. This is a nice, old-fashioned family movie about the importance of kindness. The characters learn that some things are more important than being smart. The audience learns that that lesson can apply to movies as well as people.
The movie begins in 1976 South Carolina, where small town high school football is very serious business.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Radio, described by his mother as “just like everyone else, but a little slower.” He pushes a shopping cart around and barely speaks. When members of the local high school football team mistreat him, the coach (Ed Harris) invites Radio to come watch the practice. Soon, Radio is helping out, and with the coach’s encouragement, he is speaking and interacting with people. The coach invites him to attend school as an “honorary” 11th grader.
You can guess what happens next. Second act complications appear in the form of a school board bureaucrat who thinks Radio exposes the school to liability and a star player’s father who thinks Radio is a distraction. And the coach’s daughter wonders why her father never has time for her but always has time for Radio. All is happily resolved in time for the inevitable “We learned more from him than he ever learned from us” speech and the montage showing the real Radio still leading the team onto the field, 25 years later.
It is always a little too easy to have minority or disabled characters in movies serve as saintlike or magical creatures who teach able white people how to be more authentic. The result is itself inauthentic. It pretends to elevate those who have been marginalized but in reality just uses them as plot devices. And it patronizes them by not allowing them to be fully human or to be the central figures in the story.
“Radio” handles this challenge better than most. Harris and Gooding give their characters depth and decency to provide some grounding for the story and keep it from getting too sugary. But they really have to carry the entire movie. Debra Winger appears in the thankless understanding-wife role (though she does carry a copy of Betty Friedan’s revolutionary Feminine Mystique through one scene).
Parents should know that the movie has a couple of bad words and a sad death (offscreen). In a cruel prank, Radio is sent into the girls’ locker room (nothing shown). Characters are cruel but learn their lesson. Even though it is set in the South in the decade after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the movie avoids stereotyping the white residents as racist.
Families who see this movie should talk about disabled people they know and how they are treated. They should also talk about why Radio was so important to Coach Jones, and how sometimes, if we cannot correct a mistake we make at the time, we can find a way to use what we have learned to prevent another mistake in the future. They should talk about how the coach decided what his priorities really were and about how Radio showed that he understood some things better than people who thought they were smarter than he was.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Remember the Titans and Rudy (some mature material), both also based on inspiring true stories about football, friendship, and dreams.