First, the title. It’s called The Forty-Year-Old Version because this autobiographical, documentary-style drama is about the 40-year-old, grown-up version of the kid who wanted to be a writer. Now a struggling actor/writer/director, Radha Blank had once upon a time also turned up on a 30 Under 30 list of hot young talents to watch, so the kid wasn’t deluded. Clearly, something has gone wrong in the intervening years.
Instead of having a successful career in the theatre, Radha teaches. They’re nice, funny, feisty kids – the girls want to fight, the boys are obsessed with genitalia. But it’s not what she really wants to do. Radha’s mother, a painter, has recently died and she, too, had not quite had the artistically fulfilled life she’d hoped for. Radha’s worried the same fate awaits her. What’s a woman cusping middle age to do? Become a rapper, obviously.
And off the film goes as Radha attempts a rubber-burning handbrake turn on her life. Careering from one mini-crisis to another, she attacks the only impresario who can help her, falls out with her friend and agent, and then strikes up a bizarre relationship with D, maker of beats for wannabe rappers. Her mother’s apartment also needs clearling out.
It’s true, pretty much all of it, this being the actual story of the rocky road to success of Radha Blank, stymied theatre person, reasonably popular rapper and comedian and now feted debut film-maker – Netflix snapped this film up after a Sundance debut.
What lies at the heart of Blank’s failure to succeed is her failure to play the game. A black woman in New York, the film version of herself finds there are plenty of openings for her if only she would write “poverty porn” about black lives for the woke white people who consume theatre. This she will not do… not at first anyway.
Shot in black and white, (on actual film, apparently), it’s the best film about being stuck inside the race paradigm since Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, with Blank a sassy and dry guide to a life on the skids. Other commentary is provided by drop-ins from people off the streets of New York, most of them incidentally pointing out that 40 is way too old for a rap career. And they don’t know her rap name is the eye-rolling Rhada Ms Prime (as in Optimus Prime?).
Each sphere of the story feels like it could be spun off on its own – her relationship with the kids she teaches, with her friend/agent, with the theatre outfit she ends up writing for, with New York’s underground rap scene, and eventually with her brother (played by her real brother) – I’m assuming the details ring so true because they are true but the whole thing is really helped by sensational performances by a cast of real talents. Rappers talk of flow and if there’s one thing The Forty-Year-Old Version has plenty of it’s flow.
It’s not every day that you see a sex scene that manages to be both funny and sensual, and maybe I’m being fanciful but isn’t a black and white film bursting with a love for New York and inflected with a jazz score a reference to Woody Allen’s Manhattan? Probably not cool to even say that.
It’s a hugely original film, but under it all is the “be yourself” mantra of so many Hollywood films. In fact the only bit that falls slightly flat comes when too much of the self-help stuff starts to assert itself, in what is the film’s climactic “and this is me” scene. The documentary feeling is lost, but only momentarily. The 40-Year-Old Version can afford to toss one of its jewels overboard.
© Steve Morrissey 2021