A respected, South Carolina high school football coach puts his reputation on the line by extending kindness to an illiterate, mentally challenged young black man. Coach Jones sees him, day after day, pushing a shopping cart filled with simple treasures past the practice field. After his players abuse the poor guy by tying him up and locking him in an equipment shed, Jones becomes more intimately involved in mentoring the boy, who becomes known as Radio (so nicknamed for his passion for radios and Motown music).
Radio lives on the outskirts of town with his loving mother. She describes him as the “same as everybody else, just a bit slower than most.” Radio assists with football practices and, during home games, whips up the crowd with his contagious enthusiasm. His pure heart earns him the affection of students and staff alike, though not everyone appreciates his childlike quirkiness. Some heartless, well-connected people would rather mock or marginalize Radio than try to understand him. That’s when the loyalty of those close to him gets put to the test. Set in 1976 and inspired by a true story, Radio preaches compassion, challenges viewers to rethink their priorities, and testifies to the value of every human life.
Radio is stacked end to end with virtue. Coaches Jones and Honeycut show kindness to Radio in simple ways, then give him more responsibility so he can feel like he’s part of the team. When players are cruel to the outsider, the punishment is harsh. For Coach Jones, patience and compassion for Radio aren’t momentary gestures, but a long-term commitment (their 26-year off-screen friendship continues to this day). He doesn’t just offer Radio a cold drink and a pat on the head; he practically adopts him. Others at the school give Radio jobs so that he’ll have a sense of purpose.
When a school board flunky argues that Radio doesn’t belong among “normal” students, Jones sets him straight. When a pushy booster lobbies to have Radio kept off the sidelines at football games, Jones stands his ground. And when a star athlete plays a hurtful joke on Radio, Coach benches him for the big game. Jones confesses regrets about not helping someone in need as a boy—an event that contributed to his Luke 10:30-37 heart and strong sense of justice as an adult. Radio’s mom asks Jones why he helped her son. He says, “It was the right thing to do,” to which she replies, “There’s a whole lot out there that’s right. It doesn’t mean we always do it.” Amen. As the cost of intervening on Radio’s behalf starts to rise, Coach’s wife reassures him, “It’s never a mistake to care for someone. It’s always a good thing.”
If Jones has a flaw at all, it’s workaholism. But upon being confronted with his tunnel vision, he reorders his priorities and puts his family first (his wife is concerned that their window of opportunity to impact their teenage daughter’s life is closing, and urges her husband to be a more involved parent). Radio is loyal to the team, reliable at performing his menial tasks and quick to dispense hugs to everyone he meets. He even shows forgiveness to the jock who hurt him, which has a noticeable impact on the boorish young man’s character.
Upon receiving more Christmas presents than he could have dreamed possible, Radio generously decides to play Santa, leaving unwrapped gifts on the porches of his poor neighbors. His mother points out that he has a good heart, but most people don’t look closely enough to see it. Jones lectures his team on the importance of every player doing his job well in order to achieve the greater goal.
The Jones family takes Radio to church, making it reasonable to assume that Coach’s compassion for his fellow man may be motivated in part by religious faith. As they emerge from the service, an excited Radio notes that “prayin’ in Jesus’ name” was a highlight. A public Christmas celebration includes carols about the Savior.
The violence is limited to crushing blows on the football field.
Two dozen profanities. Most are mild except for a handful of scattered s-words and a scene in which Radio utters the term “chicken s—” nearly a dozen times in babbling repetition. A football player calls Radio “dummy” and uses the racially charged expression “boy.”
Radio is a very pleasant, refreshingly moral diversion. Yet as much as I loved the film’s heart and its desire to communicate meaningful messages (not to mention a fun hit parade of ’70s pop tunes), the dramatic ebbs and flows of the story felt too calculated and streamlined. I wanted more. What I saw made me long for better developed subplots and deeper insight into the supporting characters. Those are the things that make films like Remember the Titans, The Rookie and Hoosiers special and worthy of repeated viewing. Here, it seems everyone onscreen exists to advance Radio’s tale efficiently, but are only as deep as their dialogue. For example, Mary Helen comes across as a model teenager. We see no serious struggles. No peril. No interactions with peers that require us to root extra hard for Dad to rescue her by reprioritizing his life. So Mom’s vague concern that they may be “losing her” lacks drama, as does Dad’s ultimate decision to reconnect with her. It’s a noble gesture, but I wasn’t breathing a huge sigh of relief. That’s just one example. In short, the filmmakers are so focused on the Coach/Radio arc that they miss opportunities to make everyone around them interesting.
Another frustration is that we feel for Radio, not with him. Everything we learn about him we either hear from someone else or observe as bystanders. We never really benefit from his perspective (unlike, say, Forrest Gump). He’s a human puppy dog who makes us laugh by jumping through “cute” hoops. Because we lack an intimate connection with the struggling young man, he’s more of a symbol than a three-dimensional human being.
Don’t get me wrong, Radio isn’t a bad movie. It’s just that it could have been much more satisfying with fewer contrivances (such as stock villains invented to personify rumblings of antagonism, yet who never feel truly threatening) and more character development. The result is a good after-school special, not a brilliant, richly textured feature film. Even so, its positive themes compensate for any loss of style points. Patience. Kindness. Compassion. Justice. The value of every human life. Our culture needs to be reminded that these things matter. Families hungry for a movie that shares their traditional values will be glad to find Radio operating on that frequency, though fits of profanity create maddening static.