There’s a segment of the movie-going audience that attends the theater hoping to be entertained. They want to see explosions, death-defying stunts, and any other manner of magic that will keep their butts in their seat and their eyes glued to the screen. Then there’s a segment of the audience that wants to see a heart-warming film that will let them leave the movie theater with a fuzzy feeling, and they often don’t want to admit it. I’m a sucker for those heart warmers, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Radio was one of them.
Okay, so I’ll admit, I should have known it was going to be that kind of film already. After all, it has all the prerequisites. It stars Radio, a young, black kid who just happens to be a little slower than the rest of the kids his age and who walks around town with his shopping cart and radio. He doesn’t go to school, and he doesn’t interact with other people, but what he does do is apparently walk by the football practices every single day without fail.
Radio is played by Cuba Gooding, Jr who I really haven’t enjoyed in a film since his smash performance in Jerry Maguire. It’s also a dangerous role to play since characters like Radio (i.e. mentally slow, bumbling, but generally loveable) have been done before, and have been done very well. It’s hard to watch Radio without being reminded of performances by Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) and Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) and comparing them. But Cuba puts a nice spin on Radio, and you can’t help but feel good as you watch his transition from a quiet hermit to a standout figure in the community.
The mentor of Radio is the local high school football coach, Harold Jones (Ed Harris). Harris does a good job portraying the idolized coach. He earns the players’ respect by being firm, but also being gentle by taking Radio under his wing. Not all is well with the old coach, however, as we watch him slowly losing a grip on his relationship with his soon-to-be-graduating daughter.
Again, it was difficult for me to watch Ed Harris’ performance (and it was a good one) without comparing it to Billy Bob Thornton’s performance in Friday Night Lights. I found Thornton’s performance to be more believable as a football coach trying to deal with the pressures of winning and the responsibilities of raising his players as men, but Harris’ overall performance is more rewarding for the audience because we see him as more than just a coach by the end of the movie. He’s a father, a teacher, and a mentor, and that’s something that you didn’t really get a chance to see in Friday Night Lights, at least not in the same light. But to be fair, these two movies are trying to do different things, and Radio is not really about football.
With a movie like this, you’re going to have conflict and we have plenty of it for Radio. With a big brooding football team you’re going to have obnoxious players who want nothing more than to stir up trouble, especially with a kid like Radio who seems to be winning the approval of the coach and of the other kids in school. The star player on the football team (and basketball team incidentally) takes several opportunities to wreak havoc on Radio, but as you would expect the two eventually reach a mutual understanding. We see how Radio is able to connect to people even though he speaks with slurred speech and doesn’t always understand what’s going on. It just so happens that the player’s father also leads the largest opposition to having Radio around at all, for fear that he’s distracting Coach Jacobs from leading the school’s football team to the state title.
There are a few points that seemed to bother me. One is how we never meet Radio’s older brother other than a brief mention of him being normal and at one point the older brother is in Radio’s house but we never see him. I would think the older brother in this scenario would be a more prominent figure in Radio’s life, either in the form of being a helpful older brother who looks after his younger sibling voraciously (of course, if this was the case why would we need Ed Harris right?) or the brother who is tired of looking after his brother and is constantly getting into trouble and needs to be brought back into Radio’s life. Neither of these things happens, and we’re stuck with an invisible brother who really does nothing in the movie, which I think is a terrible oversight. Thankfully we do get a good helping of Radio’s mother, who is played perfectly as slightly overprotective but generally very supportive of her son despite his shortcomings. We definitely get the feeling that she is her son’s only protection in the world, at least until Harris’ character shows up.
All in all, Radio is a very touching film filled with good performances. Similar to Friday Night Lights, we get the feeling that this small town is a people’s town, meaning everyone knows each other and speaks to one another, and we also realize how important football is to the people of the town. Not only that, it would seem that football binds this town together, and one of the most enjoyable scenes is when Harris’ character walks into the local barbershop where all the other men would be, grab a cup of coffee, and just talk football. It’s a scene that probably plays out in a lot of barbershops across the country, and the barbershop is even the setting for an important town hall meeting in the movie (which seemed a little ridiculous to me, but oh well).
In a movie like this, you know exactly what’s going to happen. Nothing really is a surprise, but the way it’s presented to the audience is what keeps the movie interesting. Radio is a generally loveable character that doesn’t become too annoying, but it would have been easy for him to start grating on the audience’s nerves. The best part for me is that this movie never really slows down and keeps my attention for pretty much the entire length. There are several touching scenes that really make this movie, and I genuinely did enjoy it. The actual football play in this game is OK, but like I said earlier it’s not really a football movie. So if that’s what you’re looking for I’d definitely go watch Friday Night Lights instead.
In the end, Radio is a very enjoyable movie with some very good performances and a touching story. It is definitely worth the rent for me.