Film & Television

‘The 40-Year-Old-Version’ Lives Up to Her Potential

My best friend recently moved to Boston, a city that I love and happily lived in until my marriage took me twenty miles up the coast in the early 1990s. Last weekend, masked and respectfully social-distanced, she and I walked for hours, from the Back Bay, along the Charles River, up and over Beacon Hill, through the North End. On Mount Vernon Street, central to one of the town’s most iconic brick and cobblestone neighborhoods, we passed the building where I lived in the mid-‘80s. An overwhelming sense of nostalgia hit me hard.

To be sure, I didn’t miss my studio apartment’s makeshift corner kitchen, subsisting on ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese (3 for $1 at Star Market), or the couple in the garden apartment below who blasted their stereo at all hours of the day and night. But I missed that feeling — being young, and free, and believing that anything is possible in the future. Thirty years on, what’s happened to all that sense of potential

Aside from the actual baseball plot, it’s kind of like Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham: youthful major league potential that languishes in the minor leagues come middle-age. Or Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, who “used to be big.” “I am big,” she insists, “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Of course, movies also give us satisfying, if sometimes unlikely, stories of people who succeed past their expected expiration date. The paunchy middle-aged men of The Full Monty bared their souls (and butts) to raise some cash, while the retirees in Finding Your Feet became dance sensations in their twilight years. These fish-out-of-water tales depend on gentle humor and more often than not include elements of rom-com, with an emphasis on com, because what could possibly be funnier than mature people falling in love?

I’ve just described two common Hollywood genres. The setup of Netflix’s new The 40-Year-Old Version nods to both of them, with an additional and obvious titular tribute to Steve Carrell’s 2005 hit comedy. But does that make it merely derivative? No. In fact, it’s one of the freshest films I’ve seen all year! Writer, director, producer, and star Radha Blank’s semi-autobiography of an artist’s early midlife crisis is smart and funny and simply great entertainment.

Blank’s central character, New York-based Radha, was a promising playwright. In fact, she was named one of the “30 Under 30” to watch by a prominent theater publication. Today, Radha is frustrated, unproduced, grieving the recent death of her mother, drinking diet shakes, and teaching an afterschool course to a group of streetwise high school students in order to pay the rent. Before this brings up another typical film theme (think Edward James Almos in Stand and Deliver or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers), rest assured that Radha’s kids (Imani Lewis, Haskiri Velasquez, Antonio Ortiz, and T.J. Atoms, all wonderful) are as quick to call her out as a has-been and a failure as they are to make unwanted sexual advances toward her. And their language is, shall we say, fucking colorful.

At this point, I should warn you that if you’d prefer to avoid profanity, you should probably avoid The Forty-Year-Old Version. But what a shame that would be. In case I haven’t been clear, I love this movie.

Radha is just a couple of months shy of her fortieth birthday. She’s written a play, Harlem Ave, which is to be workshopped by a prestigious non-profit Black company. Radha visits the theater’s arrogant artistic director, Forrest (Andre Ward), who insists they ask “the ancestors” whether Radha should be paid or not. When he receives the message that she must not confuse “commerce” with art, she asks, “Are the ancestors going to pay my rent?”

Her best friend and agent Archie (Peter Y. Kim, who memorably stole a ten-second scene with Sarah Jessica Parker in 2008’s Sex and the City movie) pulls some strings (and other things) to get her play backed by smarmy white producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney). Their initial meeting at a cocktail party is less than successful. He’s read her play but feels it’s missing the Black experience. “Did a Black person even write this?” Where is the struggle? The crime? The white savior? When he suggests that she write his musical based on the life of Harriet Tubman instead, Radha loses it and lunges for his throat.

The Black story acceptable only through the white gaze becomes a significant theme in the film. Against the odds (attempted strangulation is rarely advisable when one is being interviewed for a job), Whitman agrees to produce Harlem Avenue (“It’s Harlem Ave,” Radha insists) — provided that the playwright add a pivotal white character (“So the audience can see itself”), a gunshot at the end of act one, and some Ebonics to the dialogue. “Why is she talking like this?” an actress stops and asks as she reads a line something like, “Whats we gonna do?” to her onstage husband. In the rewrite, the gentrification of a historically Black neighborhood is somehow all right because the blood of sisterhood runs through the veins of both the Black protagonist and her nice, white neighbor who just wants to find a place to buy soy milk. Oh, and even though Radha requested a Black director, “the only ones working are already working,” so she has to settle for Julie Lipschitz (Welker White). Anyone who’s ever taken an acting class will appreciate the idiocy of the rehearsal scenes.

Even as Radha wonders how and why she’s sold her artistic soul, the entire humiliating Harlem Ave experience sparks new creativity. She decides she wants to rap. She finds a talented young — and very sexy — underground beat master on Instagram, D (Oswin Benjamin), and ventures into a deep and dicey section of Brooklyn to propose he produce her mixtape. Dismissed at first, her persistence wins out and she records her first track, “Poverty Porn.” Her lyrics bemoan the fact that despite Black families accomplishing “like the Huxtables,” the only thing the white establishment wants to consume are stories about Black babies shot in the streets because their mothers are too busy being crack whores to look out for them.

“Poverty Porn” is raw, insightful, and powerful AF. (Look it up; I’ll wait.)

In a refreshing non-twist, Radha’s rapping doesn’t take off (in fact, her public debut is a colossal failure), but through it she rediscovers her voice. This renaissance of her written word is celebrated with a genuine mic drop when she’s brought onstage to accept the cheers of Harlem Ave’s (mostly white and condescendingly empathetic) audience. “FYOV,” she chants, spelling out that she’s not only the “forty-year-old version,” but that she’s championing “find your own voice.”

Blank’s story is similar to her eponymous character’s. Her career hasn’t been an easy ascent either, although she did land a writing job on Spike Lee’s television adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It, a film (and filmmaker) that Blank readily credits as inspiration. Forty-Year-Old Version, like Lee’s 1986 masterpiece, is in black-and-white, and was coproduced by Lean Waithe (Queen and Slim). Along with great reviews, Blank was recognized at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival for Best Directing, Drama, before the film was picked up by Netflix in a lucrative distribution deal.

When asked by USA Today what she would advise any younger Black female filmmakers, Blank urges them to believe in their potential.

“Brace yourself, because no matter how hard you work, people will still underestimate your ability to make something great. Don’t take that personally, and make sure to focus on the love that you have now. Don’t waste your breath trying to convince somebody to love you; go where the love is now. Do not wait for it to come from outside of you. It’s already there. 

“If I knew that sooner, maybe I’d have made The 30-Year-Old Version.” 

The 40-Year-Old Version is available to stream on Netflix.

 

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