Precociousness can be a curse if adulthood successes don’t live up to your assumed potential. And placement on one of those 30-Under-30 lists is just a cruel public reminder what (probably) should’ve been — especially if you are nearing the end of your third decade without much to show for it. This is the situation a New York playwright finds herself in in “ The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a quick-witted and lively debut from writer, director, producer and star Radha Blank. It won her a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival and is coming to the masses Friday via Netflix.
Blank plays a semi-fictionalized version of herself in this beautifully, classically New York film, which is shot in crisp black and white. The 30-Under-30 playwriting award sits in her small Harlem apartment taunting her as she goes through the motions of her life teaching drama to rowdy high schoolers and toiling away at projects that she knows won’t get made. She’s getting anxious and desperate to make a mark and the somewhat recent death of her artist mother has made getting motivated even more difficult.
The play that she’s working on is about a Black couple living in a gentrified Harlem. The local Black theater company won’t make it, so she pressures her agent and friend Archie (Peter Y. Kim) to look for other options. It lands her an audience with a respected producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney), who has the money and the connections but also only seems to produce Black “poverty porn” plays for white audiences.
Her conflict over whether to make an inauthentic play the way Whitman would want (more white people, more about gentrification, more Black stereotypes) or to use her voice elsewhere (she tries rapping about her life) propels the film. The journey is filled with funny and cringey moments as she attempts to find herself and her voice. Blank is an excellent, empathetic and hilarious lead and she’s surrounded herself with an ace supporting cast, including Kim, Birney and Oswin Benjamin as a big-hearted music producer.
At its heart, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a wry commentary about who gets to make art and which voices we celebrate, although you don’t exactly need a study to tell you that Black women are some of the least represented voices in filmmaking. This is exactly why Blank chose the title she did. It’s not an accident that “The Forty-Year-Old Version” sounds like another famous movie title. She meant to appropriate Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin,” made by a filmmaker who loves a long comedy about a protagonist (usually a white man) just “figuring it out.” It’s not meant to be mean to Apatow or his film and the specific connections end there, but the Apatowian genre is one that not many others get to make. She even decided that hers would be as long as his, which may have been her only mistake, but it’s a funny gesture nonetheless.
We don’t generally bring out any fanfare for artists who make their first film or play or album in their 40s or beyond, as though it’s any less impressive. In some ways, it’s probably harder. “The Forty-Year-Old Version” makes a compelling case for another set of lists: The 40-Over-40. They deserve it just as much, if not more.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “pervasive language, sexual content, some drug use and brief nudity.” Running time: 129 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.