Filmmaker Radha Blank’s new movie is called The Forty-Year-Old Version, which, yes, sounds a lot like the title of another movie you might know, and, yes, she quite obviously knows that. Blank is a master with word play, being a playwright, screenwriter, and hip hop emcee, and she uses that to her full advantage.
The 40-year-old version in question is a semi-autobiographical version of Blank herself, at 40 years old, as opposed to her 30-year-old version who won awards for being an up-and-coming playwright. But that was before Blank’s mother died and she got a bit lost in the wilderness of trying to make it as an artist in New York City. When we’re introduced to this sort-of-fictional Radha Blank, she’s teaching high school drama, and she’s at the intersection of either giving up her playwriting dreams, or severely compromising her values as a black artist in favor of getting exposure through a white producer who would rather she write her characters to be more like what he thinks black people are. At the same time, she rediscovers her talent as an emcee and meets a taciturn young deejay who has more layers than it first appears.
Blank’s movie has a looseness that we don’t really see in filmmaking these days, calling back to the American independent movement of a few decades ago. She’s not at all afraid to show her influences, most especially black filmmaking luminaries such as Cheryl Dunye, and also early Spike Lee films, among others. That shaggy quality does lead to a long movie and some things that just don’t work, but it also gives it this current of excitement I remember feeling when watching those earlier movies, something that just doesn’t really happen in the same way anymore.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is a lot of things—it’s often messy, very often funny, occasionally electric, sometimes provocative, sometimes contemplative. Above all, it’s an exceptional debut for Radha Blank, who knows where she’s come from and now seems to know where she’s going, and that’s a place we should all look forward to seeing.