Movies focusing on the mentally handicapped typically want their cake and eat it, too. Filmmakers expect us to laugh at the character’s slapstick misgivings for the first hour and tear up over them in the second. Want evidence? See about every such film besides Rain Man.

Radio deftly sidesteps that problem by underscoring its story with more emotion than schmaltz and keeping any wince-inducing comedic bits to a minimum. It is sad that the film’s marketing has been based around those moments. The film transcends those second-rate tactics.

It’s pleasant, but not necessarily a surprise. Written by Mike Rich, the film shares the same no-nonsense style as his The Rookie. And it features Ed Harris without the bluster, reminding us why he gets nominated for an Oscar practically every year.

The only surprise is Cuba Gooding Jr. in the title role, easily his most impressive since Jerry Maguire. Yes, there are outbursts and exclamations. But his performance is subtle and mannered where other actors (including Sean Penn) have opted merely for tics and exaggerated shouting.

It’s not credited as such, but Radio is in part based on Gary Smith’s Sports Illustrated article about the real-life Radio in Anderson, S.C. He was a mentally handicapped man who became and remains an assistant coach and cheerleader for the high school’s sports department.

In the film, after snagging a football that sails over the fence after a high-school team’s practice, Radio is tied up and locked in the equipment shed by some gridiron bullies. Coach Harold Jones (Harris) rescues him, and then feels obligated to make things right by involving Radio with the team.

Becoming both a mentor and friend, Jones invites Radio to sit on the sidelines and participate in practices. The coach must contend with the townspeople (thankfully portrayed as confused or ill-informed rather than evil incarnate), some of which disagree with his ideas. The venue where Jones defends his choices — at the barbershop before a jury of his small-town peers — is a nice touch.

Radio works so well because the character’s never made into a Frankenstein-like outcast. He never hides out for days on end, isn’t run out of town and even a moment of unreasonable police brutality gets rather humorously turned on its ear. Given the subdued nature of the film and its lead performance, even its inevitable clashes are low-key — uncharacteristic for most movies like this.

It’s good that we see Jones working through his unpopular decisions, not speechifying about them (except when Harris chokes down that “Radio’s been teaching us” line). But even at its spottiest, “Radio” is eons beyond the ridiculous plot machinations of I Am Sam or The Other Sister. Only a third-act shift into condensed-book mode rankles, tragedies minor and major piling up in a handful of minutes.

If anything is consistently awful, it’s James Horner’s cloying music, seemingly written for a different, completely horrible film. Where Harris and Gooding ground the movie with solid acting, he’s constantly trying to deify it with angelic choirs and swelling strings.

Despite that, Radio is the sort of winning movie that comes along occasionally to refreshingly remind us that feel-good doesn’t always have to feel cheap.