REVIEW: The Forty-Year-Old Version [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 129 minutes
    Release Date: October 9th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Radha Blank
    Writer(s): Radha Blank

Is it looking for me? Cause I’ve been here.

Sometimes you must begin the process of making art for that art’s potential to find its way to the surface. Radha Blank didn’t start with The Forty-Year-Old Version as it is today. She wanted to create something with full autonomy: shoot on an iPhone, release a web-series, and see what happened. But then her mother passed away. Her ability to be the person she had been creatively suddenly disappeared and she filled it with the cathartic power of the music written for that production. RadhaMUSPrime was born with a following that carried her for two years before circling back to that original idea. But now she had the fear losing her biggest champion ignited and the experience of healing through rap. So she put that into the work too.

And like the central message of the film, Radha sought to “find her own voice.” That meant recruiting producers willing to hop onto her vision and finance a switch from iPhone web episodes to a black and white feature on 35mm—a stark contrast to her on-screen character’s benefactors and their laundry list of concessions that ultimately gentrified her take on a Black-led drama about … gentrification. With that support she could put the ups and downs from the past couple years into this fictionalized version of herself who faced so many of the same questions and struggles she did on the cusp of turning forty. She rendered this Radha a playwright ten years past winning a “30 Under 30” award with no credits to show for it.

How would that feel? Would a sense of failure seep in? Would a drive to prove the naysayers wrong provide a rebirth? Or would she simply walk away and focus on the life in front of her as a drama teacher in Harlem? Either direction leads through a path of frustration exacerbated by the sense of drowning she’s felt the past year since her artist mother died (Blank puts her own mother’s paintings into the script and enlists her real brother to be the voice on her cellphone asking when she’s going to finally help put their late matriarch’s things in storage). The anxiety and depression born from her inability to close that door pushes her to the brink of clarity and perhaps a mid-life crisis.

While that might be its start, however, Radha’s foray into rap with comical rhymes about white men having Black women’s butts quickly transitions into an emotional outlet to say everything she can’t about the systemic reasons behind her decade of struggles. She tries to tell her best friend and agent Archie (Peter Kim), but he sees the potential of playing the game to get her over the hump and be original again instead. Why should that be the only way, though? Why can’t the merit of her work be enough for rich, white Josh Whitman’s (Reed Birney) theater? Why must she be relegated to a workshop production at Forrest’s (Andre Ward) run-down, low budget house (itself a product of economic inequality)? Why can’t she be angry about it?

She can by telling them all to get lost and do it alone (figuratively speaking) exactly like the real Blank did by creating her. It isn’t an overnight process, though. And she still has responsibilities with her class of students in need of her guidance (Haskiri Velazquez‘s Rosa, Imani Lewis‘ Elaine, Antonio Ortiz‘s Waldo, and T.J. Atoms‘ Kamal). So Radha commences a long journey of introspection, missteps, and the occasional betrayal of her principles to juggle who she is, who she wants to be, and who she’s willing to become in order to bridge the gap between the two. That means pursuing beats from a talented Instagram musician (Oswin Benjamin‘s D), compromising her play’s authenticity with Whitman’s whiteness, and coming to terms with the immensity of her loss.

It’s a lot. It’s probably too much even for its own 130-minute runtime. But I can’t for the life of me think about what to cut since so many of the little things happening on the periphery end up being integral pieces of the whole. From the comic relief of homeless Lamont (Jacob Ming-Trent) wondering when she’ll get her mojo back after watching from the sidewalk across the street that no man has come calling in months to Elaine’s struggles with reconciling who people think she should be with who she wants to be, The Forty-Year-Old Version is laying down life lessons with every turn. Maybe we do go too in-depth with some side characters, but it’s weird to say that Blank should have made them less three-dimensional.

She really hits her stride after the first twenty minutes anyway, so know that the people and themes introduced will come back into the fold with meaningful results. We need those Waspy women at the theater spouting nonsense so that their continuing nonsense can hit harder later. We need misfires at open mic nights to remember that rap isn’t a career change, but a venue to process grief and rage. We even need those random neighbors mocking her decisions so D’s refusal to do the same holds impact and reverses the clichés roles like his generally possess in stories like this—the strong silent type can be sensitive and caring. Blank flips the script on so many stereotypes to literally create the world we truly deserve.

Radha gets into arguments. She chokes people, ghosts people, and almost gives into temptation with students of all genders making their interest known. But you know what she doesn’t do? Create enemies. These interactions entertain (Blank doesn’t consider the film a comedy, but it’s often very funny) by creating the kind of drama we too experience and learn from. Things get heated with those we love. Words are said and feelings are hurt, but we recognize a lot of that hurt comes from how we project our pain onto others rather than confront the truth of our own mistakes. People love to say we’re supposed to find this maturity after graduating college and starting a career, but that’s a lie. Maybe forty is the new twenty after all.


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