Ed Harris makes Radio. Cuba Gooding Jnr has the showy title role of a mentally handicapped youth - so called because of his love for the wireless - but Harris provides heart and soul as the high school American Football coach who befriends him. Normally a stalwart supporting player, the crinkle-eyed character actor carries the movie, his still, sure presence providing emotional truth to a based-on-fact story that could have suffocated in schmaltz. Cynics should still skip it - and its racial politics seem too good to be true - but its innocence and charm make for warmly enjoyable entertainment.
Coach Jones (Harris) first spies James 'Radio' Kennedy (Gooding Jnr) watching football practice. And after star player Johnny Clay (Riley Smith) and his pals abuse the simple-minded loner, the teacher decides to compensate by involving him in their sporting set-up. "I'm not sure that he's not being used as some sort of glorified mascot," says the head mistress (Alfre Woodard) and she has a point: Radio does little more than goof off in front of the crowd and smile a lot. But his smile is infectious and even though Gooding Jnr tries a little too hard to be winsome (it's a difficult role to pull of without seeming cutesy), it's credible that this tender outsider should enrich the lives of the supposedly 'normal' folks around him.
"IT'S HARD NOT TO GRIN"
Obviously not everyone is happy with Radio's new role, but the objections of Johnny's smarmy father Frank (Chris Mulkey) are always rather muted - the film is too afraid of rupturing its cosy atmosphere to allow a really hissable villain. Towards the finale this proves a problem, as there is no great challenge for Coach and Radio to overcome: just the mild protestations of a group of puppyish concerned citizens. It seems unlikely that '70s South Carolina was so devoid of racism (perhaps this is another Hollywood whitewash to anger Spike Lee), but when the closing credits include footage of the real Radio and Jones, it's hard not to grin.
Radio is released in UK cinemas on Friday 14th May 2004.