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Radio (2003)

His courage made them champions.

Directed by:

Mike Tollin

Rating: 4/10

Running Time: 109 minutes

UK Certificate: PG

The time is 1976, the place Anderson, South Carolina. Harold Jones (Ed Harris), the local school's football and basketball coach, discovers some of his players bullying a retarded young black man (Cuba Gooding Jr). Immediately, and with as much passion and drive as he puts into his coaching, Harold devotes himself to the welfare of James Robert Kennedy (nicknamed 'Radio' owing to his love of transistors), letting him help at the sports practice sessions and integrating him into the school itself, and the broader community. At first Radio's widowed mother (S. Epatha Mekerson) is suspicious, Harold's wife (Debra Winger) and daughter (Sarah Drew) are jealous, the school principal (Alfre Woodard) is worried, and the star player's father (Chris Mulkey) is furious, but as Radio gradually emerges from his shell, the whole town comes to accept and love him.

With its homely female voice-over, its setting in the south, its community values offset by simmering smalltown prejudice, and its stirring soundtrack full of pathos and sentiment, 'Radio' is determined to place itself in the tradition of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' – but while the resolute decency of Coach Harold Jones certainly revives the spirit of Atticus Finch, what 'Radio' lacks is any hint of the gothic menace which made 'To Kill a Mockingbird' so gripping. Everyone in 'Radio' is either nice, darned nice, or a bit mean (but basically nice), leaving little room for drama. There are some harmless schoolboy pranks, occasional confrontations between the coach and his principal (in which they both always end up agreeing!), and a vague attempt by rebel parents to have Radio removed from the school and placed in care – but this is hardly riveting stuff, and you may well find that, not unlike Radio himself, you have difficulty sitting still in your seat.

What redeems 'Radio' from touchy-feely oblivion is the quality of the performances. Ed Harris delivers the requisite moral authority, but he also gives Harold a certain awkwardness to prevent him from seeming more than human. Rôles involving mental disability tend to attract grotesquely over-the-top acting (and, ahem, Oscars), but Cuba Gooding Jr's portrayal of Radio's retardation is miraculously understated, even if there is not in the end much to Radio's character besides an enthusiasm for football, an appetite for pie and an unappealing desire to hug everyone all the time.

'Radio' is based on a true story (indeed the real Harold Jones and James Robert Kennedy appear as themselves in the final images), but it plays more like an adaptation of the New Testament, with the Christ-like Radio and his apostle Harold preaching their gospel of love and kindness to a community of all too willing converts. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that – it is just a pity that there was not a bit more of Satan in the theological mix to spice things up.

It's Got: Impressive performances, and, er, lots of American football.

It Needs: To be a little less like Pleasantville and a little more like Dogville.

Alternatives:

All the Right Moves, Pay it Back, To Kill a Mockingbird

Summary

True story of smalltown prejudice that is too nice, mild-mannered and cloying for its own good.