You know you’re in for something special when the main character—39-going-on-40 Radha—experiences something akin to an epiphany, riding on the New York subway, as she, a black woman, observes a white guy with a “black-size butt.” Curiously, director Radha Blank’s last name functions as a metaphor for a tabula rasa—a blank slate—on which the protagonist hopes to write her future, once she figures out what it is. Radha’s journey to that self-knowledge—it starts with the white guy’s “black-size butt”—is the story of the film.
When we meet her, Radha is a discouraged, wanna-be playwright struggling to teach drama to a mixed bag of teenagers, some of them alienated, some fully engaged in the class. She’s not thrilled with teaching, not—thankfully—the charismatic performer/motivator of “Lean on Me” (1989), but she is committed to her students, whose quest for authenticity parallels her own, and who throughout the film function as a sort of Greek chorus, witnessing and supporting her efforts. When Radha relents and approves the students’ project—a production about genitalia—it’s clear that “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is not family fare. That said, young people will enjoy the film’s engaging, poignant, raunchy rap music soundtrack (diegetic and non-diegetic), which underpins both Radha’s career trajectory and a surprising love relationship with a younger man (don’t miss the charming “Mama May I” rap duet performed by the couple with their backs to the camera).
We’re led to believe that Radha has some talent as a playwright. She won a “30 Under 30” award. She has an agent, Archie (Peter Kim), gay and Korean, who believes in her abilities. She’s written a play, “Harlem Ave.,” which touches on the theme of gentrification while eschewing what she calls “poverty porn”—the white image of a dangerous yet somehow entrancing-to-the-point-of-entertaining black community. Archie labors (in more ways than one) to sell the play to J. Whitman (Reed Birney), a caricatured, arrogant and condescending, older white producer whose ideas about what the play should say about the black community and gentrification—he insists on a more “universal tone”—are, to say the least, different from Radha’s. In acquiescing to changes in her work that will attract a large and largely white audience, and in contemplating Whitman’s offer to hire her as a writer for his “Harriet Tubman: The Musical,” Radha risks compromising her artistic integrity. “It’s not mine anymore,” she says of the play.
The scenes before and during the premier of the play are some of the funniest since last year’s “Palm Springs.” The play itself is richly comical in a satisfying if ultimately overdone way (in one scene, the real estate magnate seems straight out of “you-must-pay-the-rent” vaudeville). But the superb, expectation-defying film script is at its best in a speech—the “sandwich monologue”—by homeless Lamont (Jacob Ming-Trent), only hours before the curtain rises on Radha’s play. A neighborhood fixture and, like Shakespeare’s Fool, the film’s truth-teller, Lamont hilariously refuses the avuncular, healing, advice-giving role that Radha and filmgoers expect.
It would be tempting to label this (mostly) black-and-white effort by a first-time director (Blank also wrote the screenplay) a “small” film; that would be misleading. Although built around the standard theme of the Find Your Own Voice success story, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (note the repeated acronym) is remarkably complex and multi-faceted. It utilizes a variety of filmic techniques—breaking the fourth wall, color insets of direct speeches to the audience—and of settings: the classroom, the theater, a dark Brooklyn living room recording studio, the “Queen-of-the-Ring” event featuring women rappers in the Bronx, and Radha’s bedroom.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is replete with multiple characters, all of them (with the exception of the apt stereotypes), fully formed and effectively presented or, in the case of the recording engineer “D” (Oswin Benjamin), deliciously mysterious. Archie is credible as the concerned agent/friend who cannot quite fathom why Radha would seek a career other than as a playwright. And Radha, whose dilemma is at the center of the film, is played with a controlled, low-affect intensity; she’s thoughtful, funny, empathetic, daring, capable of irony—a rich, enigmatic, Diet Coke addict who holds this remarkable drama together.
If most of 2020’s best films were downers (e.g. “Nomadland”), this is an upper. If Radha is not quite Lin-Manuel Miranda and this is not “Hamilton,” she—and it—are close enough.
The Forty-Year-Old Version ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Director: Radha Blank
Starring: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Reed Birney, Jacob Ming-Trent, Oswin Benjamin
Other Awards: 22 wins and 39 other nominations (including a BAFTA)
Runtime: 123 minutes
Availability: Streaming on Netflix; for future expanded availability, see JustWatch here.