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October 18, 2020

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Blank crafts a winning debut movie

PRECOCIOUSNESS can be a curse if adult success doesn’t live up to your assumed potential. And placement on one of those “30-under-30” lists is a cruel public reminder of what (probably) should’ve been — especially if you’re nearing the end of your fourth decade without much to show for it. This is where a New York playwright finds herself in “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a quick-witted and lively debut from writer, director, producer and star Radha Blank. The film won her a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival and debuted on Netflix last week.

Blank plays a semi-fictionalized version of herself in this classically New York film shot in black and white. The “30-under-30” playwriting award sits in her small Harlem apartment taunting her as she goes through the motions of life teaching drama to rowdy high school kids and toiling away on projects she knows will go nowhere. She’s getting anxious and desperate to make her mark, but the recent death of her mother has affected her motivation.

The play she’s working on portrays a Black couple living in gentrified Harlem. The local Black theater company won’t produce it, so she pressures her agent and friend Archie (Peter Y. Kim) to look for other options. His efforts land her an audience with respected producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney), who has the money and connections but only seems to produce Black “poverty porn” plays for white audiences.

Her conflict over whether to make an inauthentic play the way Whitman would want — with more white people, gentrification issues and Black stereotypes — or use her voice elsewhere (she tries rapping about her life) propels the film. The journey is filled with funny and cringe-worthy moments as she attempts to find herself and her voice. Blank is an excellent, empathetic and hilarious lead, and she’s surrounded herself with a great supporting cast, including Kim, Birney and Oswin Benjamin as a big-hearted music producer.

At its core, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a wry commentary about who gets to make art and which voices we celebrate, although you don’t need a PhD to know Black women are some of the least represented voices in filmmaking. This reality is exactly why Blank chose the title she did. It’s not an accident “The Forty-Year-Old Version” sounds like another famous movie title. She meant to appropriate Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” made by a filmmaker who loves a long comedy about a protagonist (usually a white man) just “figuring it out.” It’s not meant to be mean to Apatow or his film, but the “Apatowian” genre is out of reach for most. She even decided her movie would be as long as his — which may have been her only mistake — but it’s a funny gesture all the same.

We don’t generally celebrate artists who make their first film, play or album in their 40s (or beyond), as if it’s any less impressive.

In many ways, it’s probably harder but more rewarding.


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