Born and bred in New York, Radha is a struggling Black playwright on the cusp of 40. It’s an age when doubt makes you think your best work is behind you. So when we meet her in The Forty-Year-Old Version, she’s living in a small apartment, wondering if she’ll ever get another play picked up.
In a fresh and relatively unique twist, Radha’s story is also that of its creator – writer, director and star Radha Blank. While there are differences to what Blank has been through compared to her on-screen persona, those differences are subtle; what she’s put on screen is at times painfully true, and more often, bracingly honest.
In the film, Radha is a high-school teacher in Harlem, trying to get her small class to understand the intricacies of writing for the stage. Meanwhile, her best friend and agent Archie (a scene-stealing Peter Kim) is desperately trying to get Radha’s play noticed by theatre producers, in particular, the snooty Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), who holds the keys to success, as long as Radha agrees to the series of script-changes he insists upon.
For Whitman sees the world rather differently to Radha, and her play about the gentrification of Harlem isn’t something the pair will ever see eye-to-eye on. Swallowing her misgivings proves difficult, so Radha does what nobody expects – she becomes a rapper.
Luckily, a local musician called D (Oswin Benjamin) who produces backing tracks stumbles onto her radar. Bored by the wannabe gangsters frequenting his apartment for beats, D is blown away – as are we all – by Radha’s genuine talent. But is the world ready to accept a 40-year-old female spitting rhymes like Kendrick Lamar? Regardless, Radha’s new vocation quickly reignites her creative spark – and pretty soon, she’s performing at gigs and signing a deal to pen Whitman’s new, big-budget production. Will her newfound success last the length of the film? It seems unlikely.
Blank’s remarkable debut is admirably brave. Like her on-screen counterpart, she bares her soul for all to see and embraces humiliation for the sake of the story. From crying over mouthfuls of barbecue ribs to testing out her rap skills in front of a busy audience, Blank’s work is truthful and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. For a first-time writer-director working to a tight budget, it’s also surprisingly stylish. Shot in monochromatic black and white like many of the classic New York-set films that influenced her, The Forty-Year-Old Version finds beauty between the cracked pavements of Brooklyn’s streets. Blank may be late to the scene, but her work is unlike anything else out there.
- Director: Radha Blank
- Starring: Radha Blank, Imani Lewis, Reed Birney
- Release date: October 9 (Netflix)