Films dramatizing and making light of the mid-life crisis have long been the territory of white men. The genre tends to be chock-full of navel-gazing and glamorizing destructive poor life choices spawned from the painful cocktail of the acute loss of youth and the burgeoning fear of contemplating one’s mortality, whether it be creepily chasing after a much younger woman (American Beauty) or rashly thrill seeking (City Slickers). One could easily assume that this entire genre had completely jumped the shark to the level of stereotype, until you realize that turning focus on anyone other than a white man opens up a whole new range of fun and deliciously cringe-worthy foibles to exploit. Enter: The 40-Year-Old Version. Premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, winning the US Directing Competition Award, and starring, written by, directed by, and produced by powerhouse Radha Blank, this film breaks open the genre, in the process creating a stiff contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
The 40-Year-Old Version follows Radha, playing a fictionalized version of herself, as a single, childless, middle-aged playwright, languishing in obscurity and struggling to break out and achieve the next level of career success, and potentially fame and fortune—without selling out in the process. Like many artists, Radha has a day job, in this case teaching writing to a snarky bunch of high-school students who procrastinate in their learning, yet are particularly adept in reading their teacher for filth in hilarious fashion. After one particularly humbling classroom experience, Radha throws it all away—and decides to become a rapper.
While the idea of nearly anyone, other than a small handful of the most audacious folks, attempting to become a rapper is a hilarious conceit on its own, Radha’s commitment to this decision is not only comedy-worthy, but also challenges our societal perceptions of what a middle-aged woman, especially a Black woman, not only can but is allowed to do and still be taken seriously. Radha isn’t some plucked, toned, and airbrushed, Hollywood-version of a middle-aged Black woman; she could be any 40-year-old Black woman plucked off of the streets of any major American city, with bad knees, some heartbreak in her past, a lot of hope, and more than a bit of insecurity and vulnerability. She is a unique, arresting, and instantly flawed, yet likable protagonist. The joy of the film is that it achieves being absolutely funny without selling out either the brutally honest difficulties of such an uphill battle, nor the possibility that she actually has talent enough to achieve her audacious goal.
The 40-Year-Old Version joins recent media such as the HBO TV series Watchmen in being a masterclass in how to jettison old tired tropes and begin to incorporate new voices and ethical storytelling without sacrificing the fun of the entertainment factor. It is rare to see a story that interrogates sexism and ageism through the particular lens of a Black woman, and the film deftly illustrates how challenging it is to juggle not only those burdens, but the hilarity that ensues as Radha additionally ties herself into pretzels attempting to circumvent the most banal everyday racism to keep her career afloat. Anyone who has ever worked in the theater will find themselves especially tickled by some of the over-the-top campy archetypes and excruciatingly apt portrayals of the kinds of bigotry that are accepted as normal discourse.
If that wasn’t enough fresh, rarely tackled storytelling for you, the story digs further, highlighting amazing actor Peter Kim as her hilarious Asian and gay best friend Archie, who is wrapped up so deeply in Radha’s journey that he finds himself on his own path in the process, and opens the door to some devastatingly funny next-level and sorely-needed serious discourse around the intersections of solidarity and harm between marginalized communities. Shifting the focus from the white-gaze to the lens of communities of color interacting with each other and finding healing is welcome and utterly refreshing.
Oswin Benjamin plays D, the much younger pothead love-interest who helps her proverbial Stella get her groove back. The film’s sincere and unapologetic depiction of a Black May-September romance is lovingly portrayed in black and white 35mm by cinematographer Eric Branco and fully deserves to be watched not only now on Netflix, but one day again, post-COVID, on the big screen.
There simply aren’t enough words to describe all of the gems of this gorgeously cinematic ride, which includes several amazing scenes of top-notch rap delivered by Radha and others, guaranteed to satisfy music and film connoisseurs alike. The 40-Year-Old Version is an astute and nuanced class-commentary, overall masterful filmmaking that makes Blank’s directing debut one for the history books for at least 40 years, and likely many more to come. v