Turning forty is a major milestone, one of which that can be welcome or unwelcome. At forty, you’re no longer fresh-faced, but at the same time, the effects of life may finally be settling in. Each person handles it differently, of course. However, for Radha Blank, that meant reflecting on her life and writing a semi-autobiographical feature. In her feature debut, Blank explores what it means to move on to the next stage of life, and how to stay true to yourself. Witty and relatable, The Forty-Year-Old Version is one of the best films this year.
Although The Forty-Year-Old Version is set in modern-day New York City, it has a distinctive retro feel. Shot entirely in 35mm black and white, Blank’s version of New York City is reminiscent of the early nineties. Inspired by films such as She’s Gotta Have It and Manhattan, Blank shows the city with her own spin, creating an ode to classic hip hop in the process.
The fictionalized version of Radha (played by Radha Blank herself) is a struggling playwright unhappy with her life trajectory. Formerly hailed as a promising talent, Radha constantly laments the life she should have had. Now working as a school teacher, Radha attempts to find an avenue for her art and reinvent herself. After work hours, Radha mixes and mingles with the New York City elite alongside her agent and best friend Archie (Peter Kim). In a lucky break, Radha finds a producer (Reed Birney) for her play, but not without some creative sacrifices. Although her play is about gentrification, Radha’s work undergoes metaphorical gentrification as a white director is chosen for the project, and a white lead is added to make the play more appealing. During the play’s production, Radha struggles with feeling like a “sell-out” while she basks in a potentially career-making opportunity.
Along the way, Radha decides to develop a career as a rapper in the hopes it will spark her creativity and connect her to her roots. Through her rap, Radha adapts the moniker RadhaMUSprime and channels her frustrations through her writing. An escape from the rest of her life, Radha finds empowerment through hip hop. Ushered by music producer “D” (played by real-life musical artist Oswin Benjamin), Radha (somewhat) gains the courage to rap in public.
The winner of Sundance’s Best Director prize earlier this year, Radha Blank’s accolade is well-deserved. Combining her playwright skills along with the cinematography of Eric Branco, The Forty-Year-Old Version is both an intellectual and visual delight. Radha’s experience writing for the stage helps elevate the film’s human interactions, particularly its larger moments. Still, Blank also masters the subtle movements that speak the loudest without dialogue. Those intimate, heartfelt glances between characters, and those points of realization.
What sticks out about The Forty-Year-Old Version are Radha’s on-screen relationships. Perhaps the most endearing is the bond she has with her students. Although they seem rowdy and even disillusioned at times, they always champion Radha in her endeavors, even when she bombs a live rap performance. One student, in particular, Elaine (Imani Lewis), captures Radha’s attention. On the other hand, Radha’s relationships with D and Archie are also driving points. Caring yet chaotic, Archie and Radha are two life-long friends grappling with different life aspirations. At one moment, arguing, then another loving on each other, Kim and Blank have great chemistry. D, the stoic, yet soft-hearted producer, exchanges some of the film’s most intimate interactions with Radha. With many of their feelings unspoken, the moments allow for a more vulnerable side of Radha.
On top of her writing, Blank is also a charismatic leading lady. Flawed and self-deprecating, yet sincere and still likable, on-screen Radha’s plight is universal. Effortlessly, Blank manages to draw laughs and smiles. It’s times when Radha reflects on her “old” age, complains about the bus taking too long, and her constant dialogue with the homeless man (Jacob Ming-Trent) on her street. With a lack of racial diversity on screen and a lack of inclusion in age, body type, and socioeconomic status, seeing Blank on screen is refreshing.
The Forty-Year-Old Version proves that there’s no expiration date on finding success or rediscovering yourself. It’s always a process. With her debut feature film, Radha Blank proves she’s a force to be reckoned with, and she’s not going anywhere anytime soon. She’s just getting started.