Radha Blank’s directorial debut, The Forty-Year-Old Version, stylishly documents the hilarious trials and tribulations of an artist on the search for purpose. Blank’s fictionalized version of herself with the same name, Radha, wakes up in her small New York City apartment, exhausted, as the film opens. From Radha’s first exhale, we are drawn to her humility and unique talent of intertwining laugh-out-loud humor with the mundane activities of everyday life. After winning a “30 Under 30” award in the previous decade, Radha, a talented playwright, finds herself in a perpetual state of defeat as she is aware she hasn’t accomplished much in the years following her recognition.
However, she still pushes back against the notion of becoming a sell-out by giving in to the white liberal media monopoly that has a hold on New York City. Throughout the entire film, Radha projects this same sense of indecisiveness. Constantly torn between fame versus teaching, safety versus risk, and authenticity versus popularity, The Forty-Year-Old Version reminds us that, despite the various ways we measure our life in accomplishments and failures, we are all more whole than we think.
As this year’s black and white trend can be seen in more serious films like Garrett Bradley’s Time and Sam Levinson’s Malcolm and Marie, Blank’s monochrome film achieves the same stylish appeal while offering an equally profound, yet comical tone. Much like the content of The Forty-Year-Old Version, the look of the film carves out its own singular tone, reflective of Blank herself. Above all heights that the film reaches, its humor consistently grounds the narrative in a natural way.
The film version of Radha teaches at the local high school in Harlem, the neighborhood where she also lives. Radha’s students function as both a modern greek chorus and a symbol of Radha’s own status as a student in the game of life. At times, she struggles to express assertiveness and control over the hilarious bunch that are her students. In other moments of the film, like when Radha’s students come together to attend one of her experimental live rap showcases, it’s clear that they see her as a hometown hero of sorts. While the film manages to pack so much depth and side narratives into one feature-length film, it never feels rushed or compromised. Radha’s interactions with her lively and wide-eyed students offer a universal appeal to the masses (both young and old) struggling to find their place in the world with pride.
Although Radha faces a multitude of personal and professional dilemmas throughout the film, the story’s central conflict revolves around Radha’s venture into becoming a rapper despite being pushed towards the direction of profiting off of her skills as a playwright by her longtime best friend, Archie, a bougie Korean play producer. Blank’s subtext within the film is subtle yet powerful as she inserts her own criticisms of how white people in entertainment can quickly transform something organic into a gentrified puddle — even Radha’s play about gentrification. Radha embraces her Blackness without the fear of sounding too harsh for white audiences or attempting to come off as the perfect spokesperson for her entire racial community. Even though Radha’s insecurity is explored throughout the film in length, she’s good at being her unadulterated self in all her complexities and nuances.
In an attempt to reinvent herself as a rapper rooted in her love of Hip-Hop dating back to her teenage years, Radha seeks out a local music producer to provide beats for the rhymes that occupy her distorted mind. Amidst the awkwardness and judgment-filled atmosphere that dominates the room when Radha meets D, a 26-year-old music producer in his home-made studio, Radha finds herself an unlikely companion and true listener. After taking a liking to Radha, D invites Radha to his live showcase where she is set to perform her social commentary rap on the Black experience in media, “Poverty Porn,” over one of D’s beats. Before heading out on stage — where D, his friends, and some of Radha’s students are waiting in the audience — to make her debut under the name RadhaMUSprime (a play on the name Optimus Prime from Transformers), Radha reluctantly takes a few hits of a fellow rapper’s blunt. Of course, Radha forgets all the words to her song as she awkwardly stops and restarts while on stage, leaving the audience on-screen puzzled, while viewers at home laugh at her all-too-familiar predicament. Blank is comfortable with making a fool of herself as her own candidness creates space for her viewers to laugh at our own previous mistakes and awkward moments from a new perspective.
The film embodies a more poignant tone as it reveals Radha’s grief over losing her mother in short snippets as Radha tries hard to avoid confronting this loss. When Radha is deeply uncertain about where her future lies, she briefly cries out in the middle of the night, wailing “Mommy, I don’t know what to do.” Although the film unpacks Radha’s struggle as she grapples with aging, she, like everyone else, still revisits her inner child in moments of despair and longing. Specifically, Radha can’t bring herself to visit her late mother’s home to sort through her remaining belongings with her brother. Radha dodges calls from her brother throughout the duration of the film, invoking the same feeling that grief possesses as it stays present in the back of your mind while, every once in a while, breaking through to your reality — like a phone call you’re desperately trying to avoid.
Once Radha finally does return to her mother’s house, she stares intently as one of her mother’s paintings, filled with beautiful, Black, Egyptian-like gazes, stares back at Radha. While Radha has been avoiding confronting her grief, she’s also been painfully avoiding the realization that maybe her mother is, like she sees herself, another failed artist. However, as Radha continues her scattered journey through the streets of Harlem, in the background of one of the film’s sweeter scenes with Radha and D on a street corner, the same imagery from Radha’s mother’s painting fills the larger half of the frame on an adjacent wall. The audience sees this, and, although it’s not stated in the dialogue, we know that Radha sees this, too.
Since the conception of the Academy Awards in 1929, a mere 19 Black actresses and actors have won Oscars for their performances. A large portion of The Forty-Year-Old Version tackles the lack of recognition for Black performers and creatives that choose to authentically present their ideas and themselves to the world. Moreso, Blank’s film manages to also turn the mundane, heartbreaking, and awkward moments of a Black woman’s stalled life into a hilarious narrative that stylishly mirrors the metaphorical stage that is life. Blank is a performer through and through, and she soars when she treats life as another stage, set, or studio booth to enter. Like life in the movies, plays, or songs on the radio, a distinct purpose or sense of accomplishment isn’t what makes them great. It’s the bits and pieces of life, in all its hardships and beauty, that come together to make a great story.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Jeong Park / Sundance Institute