Multihyphenate Radha Blank makes herself known in her latest, a familiar story with enough of its own flavor.
In Radha Blank’s award-winning directorial debut, The Forty-Year-Old Version, we follow an almost-40-year-old teacher and washed-up playwright (played by Blank as a version of herself). In the wake of her mother’s death, she tries to make it as a rapper. But while the idea of the struggling artist isn’t new in film, it’s rare for a Black woman to be given such a rich internal life as Blank does here. Her trials and tribulations as she works on her material make for compelling viewing. As a performer, Blank’s a winning presence too; she moves smoothly between the comedic and the dramatic, the two modes never feeling incongruent.
Where Blank really shows her talents is in the chemistry she has with everybody around her. This is at its most powerful with Peter Kim who plays Radha’s life-long best friend, Archie. Archie falls pretty squarely into the gay best friend trope complete with personalized thongs for an island holiday with his boyfriend. But their dynamic is complex, tender, and downright hilarious, which pushes Archie from a stock character into someone more relatable.
The same could be said for her connection to D (Oswin Benjamin), the man of few words who makes her beats. His characterization isn’t that interesting on its own merits, but when he’s on-screen with Blank they have electric chemistry. It’s kind of frustrating that you have to watch both of these interesting relationships forced into story arcs that are incredibly predictable, with disagreements and subsequent reconciliations feeling more like demands of the foreseeable plot structure than the natural behaviors of these characters. The best moments actually come when they’re just relaxing outside of the contrived conflict, which the movie could have used more of.
Where this clash between the underwhelming writing and great performances is at its clearest is in Blank’s relationship with her students, who are pretty much a collection of the standard characters in any “misfits at school” movie. You’ve got the Bill and Ted-esque comedic duo played by T.J. Atoms and Antonio Ortiz. Then there’s Haskiri Velazquez as a good-hearted but fiery butch lesbian, Ashlee Brian as the student who wants to sleep with his teacher, and Imani Lewis as gifted but repressed student Elaine.
None of these characters feel particularly deep. In the case of Rosa, the writing occasionally lapses into the stereotypes of violence associated with both Latinx women and butch lesbians. Velazquez gives a pretty lovable performance but her character doesn’t get much of an internal life; she’s boisterous and confrontational to the point of starting a fight with Elaine upon their first meeting. In general, the writing makes these students feel less like real teenagers and more like the straw man version of teenagers discussed by aunts around the Christmas dinner table.
Despite the writing, all of these young actors give genuinely sweet performances, especially Lewis, who conveys the clash between her harsh exterior and more complicated internal life. Blank’s warmth also extends beyond these students and New York City as a whole. From public transit to hip-hop to the theater scene, Blank brings her New York to life in a way that feels heavily inspired by the work of Spike Lee. In between are man-on-the-street interviews with assorted New Yorkers about aging and life, which add texture and a sense of place without being hugely relevant to the plot.
Amongst the interpersonal drama, Blank also intersperses critiques about the theater industry and the way it treats marginalized voices. There’s a particular focus on Black women in theater, especially the way women of color are treated like a hot commodity, even though they remain undervalued.
As a performer, Blank’s a winning presence too; she moves smoothly between the comedic and the dramatic, the two modes never feeling incongruent.
At the center of this critique is Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), a big theater producer known for diverse productions like an all-female Steel Magnolias and an “integrated” Fences. Burney is perfectly slimy, clearly enjoying every moment as he rides right up to the line of being cartoonish whilst still remaining grounded in the reality of theater. Julie Chateauvert and Doris McCarthy also show up as the kind of rich older white people these theaters are catering to, focusing on surface-level messages of unity instead of saying something meaningful about liberatory causes. There’s a precision in these scenes that should have carried over to the rest of the script.
Hip-hop is also integral to the film, both in its music and as a broader philosophy. The raps in this film stylistically feel like a throwback to ‘80s and ‘90s rap in particular, with its stripped-back beats and quasi-poetic feeling. Their lyrics pack a punch on both emotional and political levels, talking about issues ranging from police brutality to selling out.
Blank also cleverly positions the film’s concerns within a longer history of Black art (specifically Black female art). Her takes on modern popular hip-hop feel a little surface-level, dismissing the genre as hypersexualized and without lyrical or political value. It’s a take that ignores the reality of both modern and classic hip-hop, but Blank doesn’t linger on it long enough to warrant much more than the occasional eye-roll. That hip-hop vibe isn’t just limited to the music. Eric Branco’s black and white cinematography gives it the aesthetic of an album cover, though the monochrome feels a little underutilized.
The story being told here isn’t particularly unique; it’s a familiar framework that you could probably sketch out without having seen it. But there’s a powerful beating heart that Blank brings out both as an actor and a director, which makes this heartwarming rather than rote. As a heartfelt comedy about aging and a love letter to New York hip-hop, the execution isn’t as sharp as it could be, but the rhythms and soul of The Forty-Year-Old Version pull you through.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is now on Netflix.