Directed by: Radha Blank
Written by: Radha Blank
Starring: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, Imani Lewis
Achieving success never comes with a timeline of when things need to be accomplished. People switch careers late in life when they have the bravery to attempt something new and it’s perfectly fine. It only matters if the individual believes they have reached their own personal summit, which gets highlighted in the conflicted but enlightening journey in The Forty-Year-Old Version. An ode to all of the creators and a damning look at the parameters set for people of color to tell their own stories.
Once part of the 30 under 30 of playwrights, Radha (Radha Blank) now teaches this subject at a local school while still trying to actively put together a production of her latest work “Harlem Ave.” With the struggles she finds in trying to get it made, she reckons with nearing her 40th birthday and what that means for her life and what she has accomplished.
A complete vision fulfilled from beginning to end, The Forty-Year-Old Version comes in as a stunner and a brilliant introduction to an exciting new voice in cinema. Radha Blank starred, wrote, directed, and produced this feature with a deeply personal story and managed to excel in every single aspect to piece together a hilarious, incisive, and entertaining film debut. It manages to examine what it means to reach this stage in life, particularly as a woman, and how her dream has not and will not end because of it. She provides so much to talk about and it will certainly leave you feeling invigorated for what it means to create and to be brave in finding your own voice.
Radha’s struggle in this film will connect with many because she has achieved some success in her early days but now cannot seem to get much traction due not to her lack of talent, but the people around her making it impossible to produce her passion and live. Her production of “Harlem Ave.” is initially set to be produced by a regional Black theater group in a workshop style, which does not pay the bills. The conversation she has with the producer works in its comedic approach because it shows Radha struggling with trying to help out a fellow Black organization, but she also needs to pay the bills of everyday life, which their offer does not provide. This leaves her forced to follow the money and she must work with J. Whitman (Reed Birney), a successful producer who would certainly consider himself an ally without actually helping others. The interactions between them get right at the core of the struggles people of color and specifically, Black creators in Broadway have needed to navigate for their entire careers. It makes for some truly cringe moments she needs to take on the chin when he states her play does not feel like it was written by a Black person when it speaks on gentrification and instead offers for her to work on his production of several typical stories. It shows these individuals have no real concern for uplifting Black voices, they just like to appropriate their stories to give this appearance of allyship and nothing sums it up more than when J. Whitman offers Radha to instead work on his Harriet Tubman production.
Those cringe moments arrive because she needs to play nice with people actively harming her with the way they degenerate her work. She takes a satirical approach to these moments and makes them incredibly funny, especially with the strong acting performance Radha puts in. You can see her visually brace herself for the moments she expects and try to process everything being said to her in an authentic manner. One scene with J. Whitman has Radha react in a way people would think as a dream sequence but she genuinely does it and it’s so hilarious seeing it all play out. The comedy becomes a huge part of the success because even with the incisive and cutting dialogue utilized, Radha has no issues making fun of the institutional parameters she has to work through but also turns it on herself. She has those moments every struggling creator experiences like sitting in their apartment crying yelling “I just want to be an artist.” The road comes with its challenges and this film displays how it gets even more difficult being a Black woman in this pursuit.
The savviness of the screenplay ensures anyone can pick up on the issues she proposes and lashes out at throughout the story. For those involved in theatre, some of the moments she experiences may be therapeutic and stark reminders but it does not play inside baseball all the time. Instead, it all feels accessible in the way Blank lays it all out as she creates such an engaging character to buy into their hopes and dreams. It makes her struggle to succeed in something in life admirable, as she’s willing to put in the work, even if it leads to the tarnishing of her creation.
As The Forty-Year-Old Version concluded, I felt this release knowing I have just witnessed a startlingly bright and new voice in the world of cinema. This effort immediately launches Radha Blank as someone to look out for because she excels in every facet of the filmmaking promise and creates a feature with unrelenting honesty both about a system and the personal journey of life. Reaching the age of 40 feels like a death sentence for some, as it comes as the age for when people should have their life figured out. Radha still needs to find her voice as she approaches this age and the journey she goes in deserves so much admiration as detailed in this encapsulating and fulfilling movie.