The 40-Year-Old Version is the kind of movie I go to Sundance to discover. Writer/director/star Radha Blank is someone I wasn’t familiar with before. I’d even missed her work on the Spike Lee Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, but she put her voice out there, bet on herself and got into Sundance.
Radha (Blank) was a 30 Under 30 Playwright Awardee, but 10 years later she’s still teaching high school kids and trying to get a play produced. Producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney) gives her notes on her play Harlem Ave. and she strangles him. But Radha’s students inspire her to become a rapper instead.
Now, this isn’t 8 Mile. It’s not about Radha getting over stage fright or signing that big contract. It’s not Bodied either. She’s not battling any other established rappers. It’s just about deciding to do it, which is huge when you’ve lived 40 years and had a different identity you’d always thought was yourself. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years. I can’t imagine what it would be like to think of myself as something else. That’s why Blank’s bravery is exciting.
She bombs hilariously in her first stage performance. Her raps about middle age are funny too, involving her period, sciatica, being horny, dry skin and the AARP. That she can make them rhyme is impressive.
Radha hasn’t totally given up on her play either. She tries to make it work with Whitman’s suggestions. That leads to a powerful scene in which she has to explain to her actors why she’s added stereotypical black language. It’s the age old issue of art versus commerce, but once she signs off on it she has to own Whitman’s bad ideas.
The whole cast of The 40-Year-Old Version are discoveries. Blank discovered herself of course. Peter Kim plays Radha’s best friend and agent, Archie. Their relationship is touching. It gets fraught. They support each other but don’t always agree on the methods. All the high school students are memorable too.
Blank films the movie in black and white, often letting dialogue unfold in a single take. The camera follows the conversation like a tennis volley, panning form character to character. Radha also films testimonials from neighbors which are in color, intercut with the narrative.
Netflix saw The 40-Year-Old Version as an asset and picked it up out of Sundance. Now subscribers will get to discover Radha Blank just as the attendees in Park City did.