The Forty-Year-Old Version is like a time machine to the independent film boom of the 1990s, when inexperienced filmmakers who couldn’t get traction in the studio system decided to just tell their stories themselves. This resulted in a series of indie hits, like Slacker and Clerks, made with low budgets but strongly commercial sensibilities. Starring, written, and directed by New York playwright Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version is a lot like those films, but with one notable exception: It’s about a Black woman approaching middle age, a protagonist that would have found no traction in the White- and male-dominated movement of that time.
The suppression of non-White voices is also the film’s subject. Blank plays a character with her own name, Radha, a once-promising playwright who now teaches theater to teenagers. She guides them toward writing a serious play together, but all their ideas seem to involve genitalia. Teaching is supposed to be a temporary thing for her, but she can’t get her latest play, about gentrification in her native Harlem, produced without the help of Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), the only producer in New York interested in telling Black stories. Eventually, he agrees to help, but only if she makes revisions that will, in his words, “grab the core audience,” i.e., insert White characters where they don’t belong so his Park Avenue audience can understand what’s happening.
Radha agrees to compromise her vision for the sake of her career, but an artist needs to express herself, so she simultaneously begins to explore the world of freestyling. She writes verses that contrast the depiction of Black women in the media with her own experiences, and begins working with a handsome beat-maker (Oswin Benjamin) who believes in her talent. He has more confidence in her than she does in herself, and throughout the film, she vacillates between the safe, White world of theater and the riskier, but more rewarding path of trying to find success as a middle-aged female rapper.
The film has a few flaws common to an indie, low-budget first feature. It’s occasionally overwritten (“Where did I spend all my time in high school?” “With your regrets.”), and the supporting cast features actors who fall short of the standards set by Blank’s naturalistic performance and sharp filmmaking. For a first-time director, her mastery of the form is rare. The combination of pristine black-and-white cinematography, handheld camera, and location shooting in Harlem makes Radha’s journey feel both timeless and immediate. This film is an honest and serious exploration of both a character and a stage of life that Hollywood has rarely focused on with this level of curiosity. It’s also a profoundly engaging and personal work.
Most of that should be credited to Blank’s performance, which offers a seemingly endless number of emotional layers. Throughout the film, Radha is a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a lover, a friend, and, most of all, an artist, and Blank captures each side of her complex character with perfect subtlety. She is funny, but she never mugs for the camera. She reveals her sadness only when her character would, never just because the screenplay needs a jolt. She’s sexual, but not overly sexualized. Oh, and her rhymes are dope.
She’s a person the world needs to see because it rarely gets to, but that’s not what makes The Forty-Year-Old Version great. Radha is one of the most human characters in a film this year, and the only disappointment is that it took us this long to be introduced.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is streaming Friday on Netflix.