Radha Blank wasn’t on screen for more than a couple of minutes before the revelation hit me. “Oh, I get it,” I thought to myself, “This woman is a star.”
Blank writes, directs, and stars in the coming-of-(middle)age dramedy, The 40-Year-Old Version, which made its debut at Sundance this week. Blank’s character, Radha, is a New York City playwright who hasn’t been writing many plays since winning a most promising writer under 30 award. Instead, the 39-year-old spends her days teaching drama to teenagers — that is when she’s not warding off their thirsty advances.
Radha was one of the New York theatre scene’s hottest writers before her career momentum fizzled out. Now, after recently losing her mother and with 40 knocking at her door, she has an existential crisis.
With the weight of her problems crushing her, Radha does what comes naturally; she spits out a rap-verse. That act of emotional catharsis is like wrenching open a pressure release valve and sparks something lying dormant inside her. You see, back in the day, Radha was a rapper, and falling back into the artform’s familiar rhythms injects her life with a bit of swagger.
With those old creative juices flowing, Radha’s fortunes start to change, and she books a gig writing a play about life in Harlem. But this opportunity comes at a price. The guy signing the cheques wants a feel-good gentrification story to please white audiences (it’s like asking Spike Lee to write Green Book). Radha finds herself at a crossroads; take the money and sellout or go with her passion.
Let’s get this out of the way and be done with it: TFYOV doesn’t hide its Spike Lee influences. It’s an unapologetically black film, has a jazzy score, and comes across as a love letter to New York. Cinematographer Eric Branco photographs this gorgeous looking movie in black and white on 35mm film, which calls to mind Lee’s debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It. Blank is also a writer on Lee’s Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It… so there’s that too.
All I have to say about the comparison is, who cares? Successful filmmakers borrow from their influences all the time — J.J. Abrams made a career out of it. TFYOV feels like it could exist in the Spike Lee universe but still very much feels like its own thing.
This is a movie that anyone may enjoy, but if you grew up loving hip-hop in the ’90s it will hold a special place in your heart — the film kicks off to A Tribe Called Quest track – it’s the best old-school rap beat drop since Always Be My Maybe began with Souls of Mischief banger, 93 ‘Til Infinity.
You know how actors who play great athletes in sports movies can’t ever fake being great at sports? TFYOV is not the musical version of that.
This is the story of a former rapper, and a talented one no less. So, when it comes to beats and rhymes, this movie better step correct. Many of the film’s beats were crafted by the producer Khrysis, who laces each track with a classic hip-hop sound. And since Radha is almost 40, the era of music she vibes to is right on brand. All the rappers in the movie spit fire too. TFYOV features some of the dopest lines to rock a rap movie since Joseph Kahn’s Bodied.
Radha makes a great protagonist and comes across as a charming everywoman. And even though she acts like a bit of a dick, at times, you can’t help but root for her. It helps that the script is so damn funny and that Blank, the actor, has fantastic comedic timing – like when she stops and stares into the camera to punctuate a bit. Blank, the writer, employs a self-effacing style of humour, and many of the jokes come at her own expense.
I really dig how the movie handles sex, love, and lust. Radha is the type of gal that locks eyes on a man’s ass with the intensity of a fighter pilot picking off an enemy target. This isn’t your standard rom-com, with a desperate and flawed woman hunting for a man. Right from the jump, Radha is an object of desire and pursued by more than one suitor – even if they’re not age appropriate. How often does Hollywood portray 40-year-old women as objects of sexual desire? And to have Radha lusted after by younger men? More of this, please.
Without getting too spoilery, when Radha does hook up, the moment is sweet and intimate and focuses on her pleasure. Hollywood can use this film as a textbook example of how to navigate attraction, sex, and intimacy.
TFYOV presents a perfect case for why we need diversity in filmmaking. I love Noah Baumbach, but I’ve been watching his stories about privileged white New Yorkers, for two decades now. He returns to certain themes, locations, and types of characters again and again. TFYOV feels like a breath of fresh air and serves as a game-changer.
With its playful energy and eccentric characters, some people will see this film as a quirky dramedy and not get “it.” But Blank has created something unique and beautiful that deserves credit. First off, Radha is a three-dimensional character. The love of a man isn’t her biggest need. She’s not defined solely by her blackness. And her healthy sexual desires aren’t held in check by shame and regret.
Most importantly, this black woman is a pillar in her community. She is a writer, an educator, and a burgeoning Emcee. You just don’t see this character represented in Hollywood movies; a black woman fostering knowledge, respect, and unity in the black community, even while she works her own shit out. Seeing Radha’s students overwhelming love and support for their teacher left me on the verge of weepy.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is one of Sundance 2020’s finest gems. It’s an example of cinema, not as it currently exists, but as audiences want it (and need it) to be.