In 1976 South Carolina, Anderson is the kind of place where the barbershop is the de facto town meeting hall and football a religion; helmer Rich Tollin captures varsity fever in well-shot game sequences. Highly respected Coach Jones (Harris), lean and compact in Sansabelt flares, is a man of few words, single-mindedly devoted to his team. But something in him sparks after a few players, led by quarterback Johnny (Riley Smith, full of banker's-son swagger), play a sadistic prank on the shy, childlike man who ambles by the field every day with his shopping cart and vintage radios.
Because there's never any real tension or danger in the story, even such incidents of maliciousness have a dulling mildness to them. But Harris makes Jones' reaction real, and as the friendship unfolds between the coach and the man he dubs Radio, he wordlessly communicates fatherly affection and pride. Gooding creates a character who grows more assertive under the kind attention, his joy contagious. The two have fine, low-key support. As Jones' sensible football widow, Winger is compassionate and smart, begrudging her husband nothing even as she urges him to make more time for their teenage daughter. Newcomer Sarah Drew is especially good as the overlooked girl struggling not to be bitter, and there's a terrific scene between her and Harris in which Jones tells his daughter of a haunting memory that helps to explain his interest in Radio.
Despite its heart-tugging machinations, there's a compelling sense of decency that drives the film, underscored at the end by footage of the real-life counterparts. Whether such belief in human kindness is the stuff of an earlier era is open to debate, but with fitting period details, well-chosen songs and unfussy performances, "Radio" captures a more innocent time. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard, Chris Mulkey, Sarah Drew, S. Epatha Merkerson and Riley Smith. Directed by Mike Tollin. Written by Mike Rich. Produced by Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins and Herbert W. Gains. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG for mild language and thematic elements. Running time: 108 min