Radio is the kind of movie some critics might call the “feel-good movie of the year ” and it would be a fair assessment. When Coach Jones asks the mentally disabled Radio to help him coach the high school football team he brings him into the small community of Anderson S.C. and most–although not all–folks embrace him. That lets the audience “feel good” about how considerate kind and compassionate we all have the potential to be–and it doesn’t just feel good it feels great. Until that is the jerk in the back row of the theater refuses to either answer or turn off his cell phone which has been playing “Turkey in the Straw” at high volume for five minutes and we are sorely tempted to run back there and drop-kick him through the screen. Now that would feel good. But both the audience and the cast have much to learn from the good-hearted Radio about kindness to one’s enemies. Given his fixation with radios of all kinds he would probably hug the cell phone owner and take great joy in his obnoxious gadget. And as in life so goes the film. Even though some folks don’t cotton to the idea of a handicapped adult black male hanging around a high school (yes his race is relevant to the film–this is South Carolina in 1976 after all) Radio’s good-hearted nature eventually overcomes most of their objections.
Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. is back in form in Radio–at long last. He creates a charming likeable character and if it seems at times that he’s overplaying Radio to get laughs well at least it lightens things up. In any case his timing–comic or otherwise–is impeccable and he keeps the scenes lively and the pacing up. Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris is solid as the admirable Coach Jones; his performance grounds the movie and his levelheaded non-emotive style keeps the cast overall from sinking into melodrama–a definite risk in a movie like this. Equally good are supporting players: Alfre Woodard as the high school principal S. Epatha Merkerson as Radio’s mother and Debra Winger as Coach Jones’ wife.
It’s rare to find a story about a mentally challenged individual that can move you without leaving you feeling emotionally manipulated but Radio is so infused with genuine feeling–both in Michael Rich‘s script and in the performances–that it for the most part escapes this typical “true story” trap. Sure it’s a little sappy but director Mike Tollin can be credited with keeping a tight reign on the scenes and the transitions between them so the film rarely gets too heavy despite its subject matter–and when it does Tollin quickly returns to less weighty material. That’s not to say the movie isn’t meaningful only that it doesn’t dwell on its own meaningfulness–a welcome relief after other films of this ilk that do.