Radha Blank’s autobiographical film The 40-Year-Old Version is her feature film debut as a writer, director, and producer, and she also stars in the film as a fictionalized version of herself. Blank, a playwright, pulls from her New York theater roots for Version, a film about a woman on the cusp of 40, grieving her mother and the dying embers of a career that hasn’t advanced beyond the discovery phase. There are observations in Version so sharp, they could only come from someone who has moved through the world of Broadway development, and Blank casts a critical eye on an art form that loves to discover new, especially marginalized, voices but doesn’t necessarily nurture those careers once the first bloom of finding has faded. But Version is not a bitter film, it is bold and at times brash, and ultimately a second-coming-of-age story about re-finding one’s voice even as middle-aged uncertainty sets in.
Shot in lush black-and-white by Eric Branco, Version is strongly reminiscent of a Spike Lee film, particularly his first blazing feature, She’s Gotta Have It. This makes sense as Blank wrote for Lee on the television version of She’s Gotta Have It, on which Blank was also a producer. There is also a shared assuredness of tone between Lee’s breakout film and Blank’s breakout film. Radha-the-character may be struggling in her career and compromising as a way up and out, but Radha-the-filmmaker is confident and uncompromising in her tone and narrative purpose, though a film like this naturally invites the question: what changes did Blank have to make to get the film made?
Radha, one-time recipient of a “30 under 30” theater award, hasn’t had a work produced in almost a decade. She’s paying bills by teaching theater to teens, and she struggles to swallow her artistic integrity enough to work with Broadway producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney, gleefully smarmy) and jump-start her career. At the same time, she is considering chucking it all and dedicating her art to hip-hop and becoming the rapper “Radamus Prime”. She is a good wordsmith, but her first attempt at a rap performance ends in humiliation, and since this isn’t 8 Mile and the fictionalized story of one of the world’s most recognizable rappers, there is no real redemption of Radha’s rap dreams.
But there is a sweet love story between Radha and the younger DJ she finds on Instagram to craft her beats. D (Oswin Benjamin) is reticent but attentive, unbothered by their age difference, and encouraging of Radha’s rap ambitions even after she bombs at the underground performance. He’s a fantasy character in the same way the snarky yet supportive teens Radha teaches are, but Benjamin and Blank have palpable chemistry, which sells their romance and adds a layer of charm to the film that balances the saltiness of the Broadway storyline.
In contrast to D’s supportive encouragement of Radha’s untethered artistic impulses, Josh Whitman tells Radha her play about life in Harlem, where she lives, feels “a little inauthentic”, mainly because there isn’t enough Black suffering, or a post-racial encouraging ending to comfort white audience members. Radha recoils from poverty porn, but she ultimately gives in, changing her play enough to satisfy Josh and the rich old white patrons who keep Broadway running. (There is a low-key grenade thrown at Broadway types chasing Hamilton success by forcing rap into every play.)
Radha also has an agent, Archie (Peter Kim), who is also her best friend. Archie would be a stereotypical gay best friend, if it weren’t for Kim’s sharp performance of a person torn between supporting his friend and pushing his client, and again, Blank’s chemistry with her co-stars brings everything up to a new level. Archie is saved from stock stereotypes because his childhood bond with Radha is palpable, as is his combination of pride and regret at pushing her to compromise to get a play produced.
The 40-Year-Old Version is peppered with witty observations of daily life in New York, of life in the theater scene, and life as an artist who wants to create without fighting with gatekeepers intent on mining her voice for their own benefit. It has moments of great comedy, and moments of keen sadness, and just by focusing on a Black woman, it reinvigorates the mid-life crisis movie as more than just the realm of disaffected white men, much as films like Always Be My Maybe reclaimed rom-coms from bland white people. It hits all of the beats of a mid-life crisis movie, right down to the affair with a younger person, but Version does it with a style and insight frequently lacking in the genre. The 40-Year-Old Version announces Radha Blank as a major talent, both in front of and behind the camera.
The 40-Year-Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.