RADIO is a film that screams “Feel good film of the season” and, well it is. The nice thing about this warm and cozy film about a mentally challenged man finding acceptance with a high school football team is that it doesn’t try too hard. The score may be overwrought, but writer Mike Rich and director Michael Tollin never thwack us over the head with the simple moral values celebrated here.
The time is 1976, the place is Anderson, South Carolina and our hero is the eponymous Radio (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). He’s spent his life isolated from all but his immediate family thats dwindled down to his mother (S. Epatha Merkerson of “Law and Order”), the typically stoical yet good-hearted type found is these types of stories. It’s rendered him shy, but also spared him from learning cynicism. That all changes when he takes a football that flies over the local high school’s fence and the football team decide to teach him a lesson. Their coach (Ed Harris) finds Radio bound hand and foot in the equipment shed with his team lobbing footballs at it. Instead of punishing them by just making them run extra laps, he does something better. He coaxes Radio to be part of the staff, forcing the guys to get to know him as a human being instead of someone who’s different.
Sure, all that time with Radio is time away from his wife (the vibrant Debra Winger relegated to the loving spouse role) and daughter, Mary Helen (properly preppy Sarah Drew) causes some unhappiness, but it doesn’t drive anyone to drink or inappropriately risky behavior. And when the chips are down and the crisis brews because there has to be a crisis, they rally with a tight support system.
Instead of that being the whole story, though, that’s merely the jumping off point. In the course of the film basically decent people are made better people by knowing Radio and Radio finds his place in the world with a few bumps along the way. He is a holy innocent, whose boundless joy, once he comes out of his shell, first takes people aback and then draws them in, even the school’s principal, played by the always reliably grounded Alfre Woodard, is won over against her initial better judgment, allowing Radio the run of her high school. Cuba Gooding, Jr. gives an affecting, unstudied performance with a face dominated by truly ugly prosthetic teeth. His Radio can seem brusque and his attention wanders, but you never doubt the big heart underneath, even when he’s getting pushy about the arrival of his peach and blackberry cobbler. Harris is properly laconic as Coach Jones, a man who believes in playing fair and in the semi-divinity of Cowboys coach Tom Landry.
RADIO is a sweet film that plays to the heart with little pretension aside from that annoying, overblown score that I was going on about. It doesn’t ask us to plumb any painfully deep emotional depths, or challenge any of our paradigms, but it’s a film that values right over wrong and to which you can take the whole family without worrying about awkward moments. That’s saying something these days.