OK, we get the reference in the title. But this is no mere play on words. It’s a title that actually means something and is wholly relevant to the film, one that also marks the emphatic arrival of one Radha Blank. Remember the name because, judging from The Forty Year Old Version, we’re going to be hearing a lot more from her, both as a performer and as a writer.
She wrote, directed, produced and plays the lead role in the film, so this is about as personal as it gets. Loosely based on her own life, it finds Radha as a struggling writer in New York approaching that halfway house in life, her fortieth birthday. At thirty, her future looked bright, she was on the way up as a playwright but ten years later, her career is going nowhere: nobody wants to know about her award winning play, she’s having to earn money from teaching and, worst of all, she’s struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother. What seems to be a lightbulb moment pushes her in the direction of rapping instead of writing, but she’s not sure that’s right for her either. So she finds herself vacillating between the two to find her own voice.
Or should we say Find Your Own Voice – yes, the same initials as Forty Year Old Version. Blank certainly found her cinematic voice at Sundance earlier this year, when this debut feature won the directing award. Essentially a one-woman show, rather like her own stage performances, it looks at the world through 40 year old eyes that can’t miss the approaching prospect of invisibility and irrelevance. Despite having lost her mother, the foundation of her life, she won’t have any truck with dissolving into the background and proves to be something of a natural when it comes to rapping. Her teenage gift for rhyme comes to the fore and she creates a whole new public persona for herself, RadhaMUSprime. And yet her heart really isn’t in it.
Her route to making her choice is populated with some joyous New York characters who provide a loose commentary on her life, in particular Jacob Ming-Trent as the outspoken homeless guy resides on the pavement across the road from her apartment. New York itself is filmed in black and white, but this is no nostalgia trip, rather an affectionate yet realistic portrait of the city. The setting’s important – Blank is a proud New Yorker herself – but ultimately this is a comedy which relies heavily on words. Whether it’s rhythmic raps, theatrical dialogue or simply whip-smart – and sharply observed – bants, there’s much to enjoy and satisfy in her writing. And make you laugh. A lot.
It’s a film that will chime with anybody seeing 40 looming on the horizon – or, indeed, anybody who’s crossed that bridge and is still going. You don’t have to be a struggling writer to understand where Radha is coming from and she’s spiky yet compassionate enough to make you wish she was your friend. Admittedly, there are times when the film’s pace is too leisurely and some of the subplots don’t really lead anywhere, but this is a film that balances sharpness and heart with precision. In the end, age doesn’t define us – or her – and, judging from this debut, the best is yet to come from an engagingly perceptive new voice.
Comedy | Cert: 15 | Netflix | In cinemas 2 October 2020. On Netflix 9 October 2020 | Dir. Radha Blank | Radha Blank, Oswin Benjamin, Peter Kim, Reed Birney, Jacob Ming-Trent.