One of the great things about Netflix snapping up some of the best films of the year is how easily the platform can make an incredible film available to millions. One of the worst things about it is that with a seemingly never-ending list of options in your queue, it’s all too easy to miss truly remarkable movies when they come along without the fanfare they deserve. For The Forty-Year-Old Version, the story of a struggling New York City playwright determined to salvage her artistic career, plenty of acclaim has already been afforded: for one, the film won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance this January, after workshopping its way into existence through that organization’s Directors Lab. And yet, there’s not nearly enough buzz about this smart, sizzling send-up of the life of an artist and the very real struggle inherent in making a living as a creative.
Radha Blank is the creative genius at the center of the film, both in front of and behind the camera. She wrote and directed the film in which she stars, an unabashedly autobiographical story of a woman with some early career success under her belt who’s finding it hard to leverage that into something more substantial as she approaches her 40th birthday. Though deeply steeped in both Blank’s native New York City and the world of the theater, The Forty-Year-Old Version is so relatable it hurts. When work and career define one’s life, what’s left and what do you do with yourself when those aren’t going exactly as planned?
The Radha of the movie (the character is also Radha; when referencing her filmmaking, I’ll call her by her surname) is pushing 40 and still banking—to whatever degree she can—on the success of being named to one of those elusive (and ultimately meaningless) 30 Under 30 lists. After some success as a playwright, her work opportunities have stalled out and she’s resigned to teaching unruly teenagers who only want to write plays about sex and superheroes. Her best friend and agent, Archie (Peter Kim), tries to keep her spirits up and her work relevant, convincing a couple of older white producers to back her latest play, Harlem Ave, about the gentrification of a Black neighborhood. At a gala event, she bumps into a different older white (are we sensing a theme here) producer who finds the new play not exactly to his liking (too Black, though he’d never be so gauche as to say it so bluntly); instead, maybe Radha’s interested in writing the book for his musical on Harriet Tubman (or is it Shirley Chisholm?)? The audacity in every word that comes out of his mouth would be hilarious if it weren’t so real and offensive, and Blank’s performance in this moment (and so many others) leaves nothing to the imagination regarding her feelings on the matter. (As my mother would say, she wears her heart on her sleeve.)
None of it is work she particularly wants to do, but isn’t this what she’s been working so hard for all these years? How do you turn down the work you’ve wanted all your life, even if that work isn’t quite what you had in mind? Seeking creative fulfillment elsewhere, Radha taps into her natural talent for rapping, creating biting, topical lyrics about her frustrations, shortcomings, aspirations and observations. When she discovers a local DJ’s beats via Instagram, Radha enters a whole new version of the creative life, making her way to his apartment/studio in the Bronx to see if she might just have something worth laying down. The farthest cry from the hallowed theater halls she’s used to (and used to feeling like she doesn’t belong in), Radha is initially just as uncomfortable at D’s. The producer (played with an understated finesse by Oswin Benjamin) isn’t much of a talker, but it’s clear he gets her and is willing to give her a shot.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is a lengthy film, at just over two hours long. But Blank makes the most of every minute, as every interaction and conversation is an insight into her experience as a creative, a Black woman, a single woman and so much more. At turns funny, thoughtful, tender, vulnerable, sharp and always insightful, it’s a story that works beautifully in both bringing Blank’s life to screen and allowing those with a very different lived experience to understand hers. In the film’s press notes, Blank is asked whether she ever considered casting anyone else in the lead role. Her response, of course, is no freakin’ way—this is her story to tell, her story to see on screen and share with the world. And thank goodness she did.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.