Directed by: Radha Blank
Premise: An African American playwright (Radha Blank) on the verge of her fortieth birthday struggles to get her work produced. She takes a writing job she detests while experimenting with hip-hop music.
What Works: The Forty-Year-Old Version is a smart show business story about a writer struggling to maintain her artistic integrity. Radha (Radha Blank) is a playwright facing an artistic and economic crisis as well as the specter of her fortieth birthday and everything that milestone represents. Radha is inspired to try her hand at hip-hop music, channeling her frustrations into lyrics and she comes into contact with a music producer (Oswin Benjamin). He responds to her lyrics but economic realities force Radha to take the job writing a play about urban gentrification and she is caught between the creative work she wants to do and a writing gig that will pay her bills. This is a familiar scenario but it is done extremely well here and the racial aspect of this film gives it an additional layer. The Forty-Year-Old Version is about a number of issues but one of its most interesting and provocative aspects is its depiction of an African American writer navigating an industry dominated by white financiers and directors. In an effort to be topical and socially woke, the white characters dwell on black suffering but they contort the content to assuage white audiences. This is an especially relevant point at this moment when creators of color are making inroads into entertainment and audiences crave socially relevant content but this often takes the form of what Radha calls “poverty porn.” The social commentary of The Forty-Year-Old Version is weaved into a story that is quite funny and it approaches its cultural critique with a great deal of humor and a cast of complex and nuanced characters. The Forty-Year-Old Version is led by Radha Blank, who also wrote and directed the film, and Blank allows herself to be ridiculous and vulnerable. Also notable is Oswin Benjamin as the music producer. Benjamin’s performance is subtle but he gradually opens up and the relationship between the producer and the poet is enjoyable.
What Doesn’t: The weakest element of The Forty-Year-Old Version is the subplot in which Radha teaches drama to high school students. These scenes aren’t bad; they’re generally funny and the teenage characters are vivid. But this subplot is detached from the rest of the movie. The Forty-Year-Old Version has a lot going on in it and most of these parts coalesce in the ending but the drama among the teens comes across extraneous.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: The Forty-Year-Old Version is an impressive feature film directorial debut from Radha Blank. It’s relevant and incisive but also funny and humane and the movie features a cast of vivid and complex characters.
Episode: #834 (January 10, 2021)