REVIEW: The 40-Year-Old Version (Sundance 2020)
Radha Blank is a New York-based playwright and television writer who had plans for a autobiographical web series, which were derailed with the death of her mother. After some time passed, she realised that film was a better format for the project and that has become The 40-Year-Old Version, which has already been picked up by Netflix after premiering at Sundance 2020. As well as writing and directing, Blank stars in the film as a semi-fictionalised, heightened version of herself. Radha (the character) is a playwright who supplements her income with teaching an after-school drama class in a High School. She is disheartened by rejections and knock-backs and by what she’s being offered (a Harriet Tubman Musical with white producers). She starts channeling this frustration into one of her other loves – hip-hop. She adopts the persona of Radhamus Prime and approaches a DJ and producer, D (Oswin Benjamin) to help her. The film is honest, extremely funny and beautiful to look at.
Radha is “three months shy of forty” (something painfully and specifically relatable for this particular reviewer) and much of the comedy, as well the hip-hop lyrics come from Blank addressing the many realities of all that entails, especially for a single woman. It is also about taking a chance and a risk at that age – to leave or switch careers, to pursue your dreams before it’s too late. Radha suddenly gets some interest in one of her plays, but is forced to make compromises in order to get it produced. The play is about gentrification and she asks for a black director, but is given a white woman. A white lead character is introduced to give the audience someone to “relate to” and her black lead is given questionable dialogue. This is complicated by the fact that the agent who helped get her this gig is her High School best friend Archie (Peter Kim).
Blank joins the great legacy of shooting New York in black-and-white, something which instantly gives the film a timeless, classical feel. She says that filming hip-hop culture in black-and-white helped “cool it down.” Cinematographer Eric Branco shot The 40–Year–Old Version almost entirely on 25mm black and white film. His past cinematography work includes Clemency, the Sundance 2019 Grand Jury Prize winner. He skilfully shoots both the day and night city-scenes beautifully, constantly adjusting to the dim light of small apartments or the neon-lit streets. The influence of that other great New York filmmaker Spike Lee (Blank was a writer on the TV version of She’s Gotta Have It) can be felt through her use of Talking Heads, like a Greek Chorus of members of the community giving Radha advice. These are shot in an almost 1:1 aspect ratio, focusing the viewer on the figure directly speaking to the camera. The other elements that are frequently inter-cut into the narrative are personal photographs of Radha’s – including her prom photo, photographs and paintings from her artist Mom and flyers for performances by her jazz drummer Dad. We get a real sense of her history and the scrapbook-like nature of the autobiographical text.
The large cast of characters, including Radha’s students and the wider community, make The 40-Year-Old Version film full of life and gives it authenticity, while also being stylised at times. There is a thrilling rap battle filmed in a boxing ring using a handheld camera, which shows Radha what she could achieve, after she spectacularly bombs at her first performance. Radha’s students supporting her endeavours – whether its the play or the hip-hop – certainly rings true and the young cast are funny, fresh and full of talent. Radha is a fully-rounded, complex character and the film shows her sexuality and desire (and that being fulfilled by a younger man), as well as another aspect of aging – grieving for a parent. There are many awkward or painful aspects of Radha’s life which she avoids, which shows how much being an adult has changed within a generation. Radha’s life is not that different from a twenty year old’s, other than the fact that she once the recipient of a “30 Under 30 Award” for playwrighting and she is now painfully aware of how much time has passed since then and what she has to show for it.
The only small flaw in The 40-Year-Old Version is that it is a little over-long and drags somewhat at times. It is understandable that a debut feature film as heavily autobiographical as this is going to end up a little over-stuffed. However, Blank has pulled off that difficult-to-achieve sweet-spot of writing something incredibly specific, with a strong sense of time and place, that is full of universal themes it is easy to relate to. A truly hilarious script, shot with much more thought and precision than is usually afforded to comedies, with a natural cast full of raw talent – this deserves to be one of the break-out hits of the festival. It is just hoped that it will find its audience on Netflix.