Another film on my awards season list is The Forty-Year-Old Version, released on Netflix, the film is a brilliant comedy film written, directed and starring Radha Blank. It first premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, with Blank walking away with the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award which made it one of the hottest releases at Sundance. Although it is marketed as a comedy and really showcases Blank’s talent for humour, the film crosses into many genres, particularly drama and musical as we see every side of Radha’s life as she approaches her 40th birthday. Marking her feature film debut as a director, Blank has a distinct vision that allows the audience to see real women and the real New York. The decision to shoot the film in black and white made me think of Spike Lee’s films from the 1980s, especially since they are set in New York and feels like a fresh take for the 21st century just as Lee’s point of view was on his film’s release.
The Forty-Year-Old Version follows Radha, a fictionalised version of Blank as a struggling playwright and teacher who is trying to get her play, Harlem Ave. off the ground. Attempting to revive a failed rap career under the name RadhaMUSprime, we go through Radha’s artistic process and how it overlaps through different mediums of expression such as musical, plays, performances. As she balances her teaching career, trying to get her play produced and emerging as a rapper, Radha’s life becomes hectic and out of control as she struggles to maintain a balance. Soon enough, Harlem Ave. gets a renowned producer on board but that soon changes when the producer aims to market the play to middle class white people who know nothing of the struggles of the gentrification that Radha’s play explores. From exploring a young black couple who own a small store affected by gentrification to the addition of a white protagonist whose qualms in life is not having a place to buy soya milk. The play actually explores gentrification in an ironic way that brings those issues to light. It is Blank’s incredible script that talks about gentrification and the African-American struggle in modern day New York where the film really shines.
Playing a fictionalised version of herself, Radha Blank pulls off a great and relatable performance that perfectly highlights the struggle of being an artist. Radha is real, unfiltered and flawed whilst trying to express herself through her art. As she tries to write her.play, she finds herself rapping the words. Through music, she is able to find the words that she wants to say. Her point of view as a black woman who is nearing 40 in a society that is obsessed with youth and gaining success at a young age is something that confuses and shocks the audience. However, Radha’s voice comes in the climactic final scene of the film. As her play reaches its opening night, Radha is embarrassed and is appalled at being associated with such a result. Her rap speech at the end of the play is an exhale of all the words she wanted to say but couldn’t initially find them.
In support, the highlight for me is Peter Kim as Radha’s agent, Archie. Desperately trying to book Radha a gig, Archie provides comic relief and the scenes and rapport the two share makes for great dialogue. Whereas Radha is a creative, Archie is completely logical and aiming to achieve the American Dream by making money. Staying loyal to Radha as they have been longtime friends, it’s easy for Radha to forget Archie’s own struggles as an Asian-American because his aims are different to hers. The scene in which Archie breaks down to Radha hits hard, especially given that he is seen as light comic relief up to this point. Just like Radha, Archie also makes sacrifices to make way for opportunities and keep the door open for Radha to have her play produced after she lashes out at the producer.
Overall, The Forty-Year-Old Version is one of the most original comedies to come into the 2021 awards season. As it is one of the smaller indie films, it’s not likely to rack up lots and lots of nominations sadly but I think it stands a very good chance in the Original Screenplay category. As mentioned previously, the final scene is an absolute masterclass in acting and writing. Through all the humour that the film conveyed throughout, that serious tone in the rap/speech grounds the film and also allows Radha to cut through all the noise. Blank’s writing is fearless, unflinching and unapologetic and the result is a fantastic film that perfectly exemplifies the struggles of African-Americans when it comes to creating art and how their output has to be approved by a white audience. Blank subverts this rule by firmly putting a middle finger up to an establishment that is trying to rewrite the history of gentrification.
What did you think of The Forty-Year-Old Version? Let me know in the comments below!
The Forty-Year-Old Version is available to watch on Netflix now!