Netflix film “The 40-Year-Old Version”, which won the US Dramatic Competition Directing Award when it had a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is a witty and edgy comedy film which will definitely leave lasting impressions on you for a number of good reasons. While cheerfully bouncing along with its forthright heroine, the movie deftly generates one acerbic moment after another during its 2-hour running time, and the overall result is one of the most impressive debut works of this year.
At the beginning, the movie gradually establishes the current status of its heroine Radha (Radha Blank), a struggling African American female playwright who is soon going to have her 40th birthday. There was a time when she was regarded as one of the most promising young playwrights in New York City, but she has been mostly forgotten and overlooked at present, and the main source of her current income comes from teaching a bunch of high school students in her small acting class, who often provide some bright consolation to her via their youthful energy and uninhibited creative spirit.
Radha keeps trying to find any opportunity for her career advance, but she only finds herself disappointed and frustrated again and again. As her loyal agent/best friend, Archie (Peter Kim), who is incidentally a Korean American gay dude, is willing to try as much as he can for helping her, and he later drags Radha to a small party attended by a bunch of notable theater producers who may be interested in financing the stage performance of her latest play, but these rich folks, most of whom are incidentally Caucasian, are mostly interested in those grim African American tales of poverty and suffering. In fact, they do not give a damn about other kinds of African American tales including the one proposed by Radha, and one certain powerful producer annoys and then infuriates her a lot with his obnoxiously condescending comments on how she should change her latest work.
Radha also tries on a local independent theater company led by some notable African American male playwright, but, again, she finds herself against the wall because that playwright in question is so self-absorbed in his artistic importance. Although his theater is quite shabby besides being in the need of some repair, he remains smug and arrogant while not listening to Radha’s request at all, and that certainly leads to more frustration and exasperation for her.
Not long after that, one unlikely idea comes upon Radha. For letting out her anger and frustration, she embarks on creating a piece of improvisation rap, and that makes her feel a bit better than before. After all, she once wrote lots of rap songs during her high school years, so she seriously comes to consider beginning a rap career instead of writing more theater plays.
She happens to know a guy who may give her some help. He is a local music producer/composer nicknamed “D” (Oswin Benjamin), and all Radha needs is a sufficient amount of good marijuana to be exchanged for the background music composed and produced by him. Once the background music for that improvisation rap piece of hers is ready, she goes all the way during the following recording process, and D comes to sense something special as watching her performance.
Now you may think you know where the story is going, but the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Radha Blank, which is partially based on her real-life experiences, does not take an easy route at all. While having a liberating sense of emotional ventilation from her raps, Radha remains unsure about what she should really do for her life and career, and we later get a cringe-inducing moment when she clumsily attempts her first public performance in front of many people. When her agent manages to get another possible opportunity for her playwright career, she becomes conflicted on whether she should make compromises for what she has yearned for years, but, to her surprise, it turns out to be pretty easy for her to accept questionable compromises demanded by her producer and director.
As steadily following her autobiographical character’s bumpy artistic/emotional journey, Blank frequently throws humorously barbed moments such as the absurd scene unfolded during the workshop process for the stage production of Radha’s latest play, and she also did a wonderful job of capturing the vivid and authentic urban atmosphere of the streets and alleys of New York City on the screen. Thanks to her cinematographer Eric Branco, many key moments in the film are gorgeously captured on the black and white in 2.35:1 ratio, and you will appreciate how Blank and Branco occasionally let colors pop on the screen for comic or dramatic effects.
While Blank firmly holds the center as the heart and soul of the film, she also generously allows the several other main cast members to shine around her strong performance. While Peter Kim steals the show as a neurotic agent who must balance himself between professionalism and friendship, the other main cast members including Oswin Benjamin and Jacob Ming-Trent are also solid on the whole, and Redd Birney is amusingly detestable in his small but crucial supporting role.
In conclusion, “The 40-Year-Old Version” is funny, refreshing, and uncompromising in terms of story and characters, and I was quite entertained by its numerous good moments in addition to admiring Blank’s confident handling of mood, narrative, and performance. I do not like making a hasty judgment on her future career, but I think she is another interesting African American filmmaker to watch, and I will look forward to watching whatever will come next from her.