directed by Michael Tollin
(Columbia, 2003)

Harold Jones was one of the winningest coaches in the South Carolina outback. James Robert "Radio" Kennedy was a young mentally retarded man who spent most of his days pushing a shopping cart around Anderson, S.C., and, of course, listening to one of his many secondhand radios.

Though their paths had crossed many times, it wasn't until some of his team members decided to "punish" Radio for taking a ball that landed outside the practice field that Jones took the first small steps that would change the course of Radio's life and eventually all of Anderson's.

Radio is a fascinating film based, we are told, on a true story and designed to teach a lesson that's brought home perhaps a little too clearly at times.

From its very opening -- a shot through autumn trees and a wizened female voice telling us of what fall is all about in Anderson (football, of course) -- Radio is imbued with the spirit of To Kill a Mockingbird, another southern tale of a mentally retarded man (and prejudiced townsfolk) that speaks to us of the possibility of victory over social disconnection.

But unlike Atticus Finch, it's not clear what drives Jones to do something his team members question, his daughter resents, his principal has deep reservations about and his school board decides to investigate -- or what prompts him to stay the course even when it could mean losing his job.

That makes Radio a multilayered controversy, something film fans don't often get to see in this age of box-office good vs. box-office evil. And yet, it's not so much the dramatic conflict that makes Radio work as the performances.

Ed Harris hits all the right notes as Jones, a man of few words who insists on doing what he knows is right even when he's not sure what that is. It's a great part for Harris, who has a decided talent for looking tortured in a low-key kind of way.

But most of the acting kudos have to go to Cuba Gooding Jr. for bringing Radio to the screen with all the nuances and mannerisms of a developmentally disabled young man -- the shrugs, the downward casting of the eyes, even a bad set of teeth -- while imbuing him with the human dignity he so richly deserves.

Gooding is especially on target in the early scenes, where Radio -- too turned inward to speak much with his own mother, much less people he doesn't know -- has to communicate almost entirely through body language. Witness in particular the scene in which Jones tries to apologize for his team while Radio keeps trying to give him back the ball, all the time assiduously avoiding speech or eye contact. Or revel in the two scenes where Radio orders pie at the local diner; the unspoken difference between them speaks for itself.

Many times Jones is asked where all this is going. His answer, and it's an honest one, is that he doesn't know.

And that's part of the fun of Radio. It's hard to say where it's going, because Jones and Radio are exploring virtually unmapped territory. Fortunately for Radio, and all of us, this tale of social disconnection in the 20th-century South has a happy ending, even if it is overlaid with a song sappy enough to have come from the '70s.

Radio is hardly the perfect film. As Linda Jones, Debra Winger is left little to do besides stand by her man. And the film's stock villain, banker Frank Clay, rarely gets to do much besides grunt his disapproval. He'd make a more convincing counterweight if we got to see some of the good he must have done at some point to have so much standing in the community.

Still, tales of triumph are hard to find, and true ones even harder. Here's a film that reaches out to the very best in us -- and, much to our surprise, offers documentary evidence that it exists.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 30 October 2004

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