Twenty minutes into “The Forty-Year Old Version,” now streaming on Netflix, a despondent Radha Blank (Blank, playing a fictionalized version of herself), having attacked a potential backer for her new play cries out in anguish, “I just want to be an artist! Mommy, please tell me what to do!” Making art, especially from an underrepresented perspective, is the theme of this very entertaining movie.
In the film’s world Blank is a single, playwright whose theatre career has stalled. She was once celebrated on a “30 under 30 list to watch” but is now almost 40-year-old and feeling invisible. “We watched,” says a TV reporter, “but where did she go?” Blank survives by teaching high school drama and hanging out with her best friend, talent agent and one-man support system Archie (Peter Kim).
She harbours high hopes for her most recent work, a stage play called “Harlem Ave.” Trouble is, she’s having trouble getting it produced. There’s either an African-American theatre company that doesn’t have the money to mount it properly or Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), a white, liberal producer who wants to meddle with the script, turning it into poverty porn. “I’m a playwright,” she says, “but I don’t really feel like one these days.”
Feeling cut loose from the theatre world she veers out of her lane to give rapping a try. Working with Bronx music producer, D (Oswin Benjamin) she finds a voice—and a new name, RadhaMUSprim—to express life frustrations about sciatica, and the AARP in rhyme but chokes in her first on-stage show. Dejected, she opts for commerce over art and agrees to compromise, adding in a white co-star at Whitman’s suggestions to get “Harlem Ave” produced.
“The play,” she says to Archie. “It’s not mine anymore.”
“The next one will be,” he replies.
Blank, whose resume includes off-Broadway stage plays and writing and producing the TV adaptation of “Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It,” is as engaging a screen presence as she is a writer/director. With humour and a sharp sense of social commentary she’s crafted a film that observes artistic insecurity, middle age and the difficulty of balancing one’s true voice against commercial concerns.
At the centre of it all is Blank, whose self-deprecating character finds strength and wisdom, but not in the traditional underdog narrative. The movie is leisurely, taking its time to get where it is going, allowing the viewer get to know Radha and root for her as she finds her path.
“The Forty-Year Old Version” is an account of an artist’s struggle but it isn’t strictly an artist’s story. It’s universal tale of being true to one’s self no matter the cost.