The Forty-Year-Old Version reminds me of one of those classics of the ‘90 independent film boom – like Slackers or Clerks – that blend a low-budget indie aesthetic with a winning commercial sensibility. The Forty-Year-Old Version fits neatly into that archetype – it was made on a shoestring by New York playwright Radha Blank before being acquired by Netflix – except that its lead character is black, female, middle-aged, a combined set of qualities that would have made her unusable in Hollywood in the ‘90s, or in any era except this one.
Blank writes, directs, and stars as a character loosely based on herself, a once-promising playwright who, a few days shy of a major birthday, is running out of time to make her mark. She has talent but can’t get past the gatekeepers of the New York theater scene, mostly old white guys who want to make her play about gentrification in Harlem more “accessible.” She finally decides to compromise and gets her play produced by J. Whitman (Reed Birney), but the changes he insists on to appeal to Park Avenue are stifling. It doesn’t feel like her play anymore, so she finds a new creative outlet. She teams up with a handsome beat-producer and begins a a hip-hop career. Her rhymes convey the realities of life as an aging Black woman that the gatekeepers forbid her from expressing.
What makes The Forty-Year-Old Version radical, and more than a token offering to women of Radha’s race and age, is that it allows her to be complex. It’s a true character study; the time we spend with her only feels like a slice of her long, full life. We learn about her past and her future. We see her as a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a lover, and, most of all, an artist. She moves through life with a sense of both comedy and tragedy. She is sexual but never sexualized. She’s allowed to exist as a complicated person in a complicated world, and the only reason that it happened this way is because Blank told her story on her terms instead of trying to squeeze it through the Hollywood machine.
Her approach comes with a few downsides. The supporting actors feel like friends of hers from the theater scenes and are not all up to her high standards of acting and filmmaking. Kudos to her for being loyal, but the film deserved better. Similarly, there are elements that could be cut completely, like some early direct-to-camera business from Radha’s eccentric neighbors, which feels like a holdover from an earlier, inferior version of the scripts. Still,The Forty-Year-Old Version is so raw and vulnerable that its weaknesses somehow become strengths. Like its underdog heroine, you root for it to succeed not in spite of its flaws but because of them.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is available on Netflix.