SUNDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Radha is having a hard time. A struggling actor and playwright in New York, she suffers rejection after rejection. To make ends meet she teaches stagecraft to teenagers, catching plenty of side-eye from the more successful in her periphery. To add to that, her mother recently passed away. None of that compares to her biggest worry; Radha is about to turn 40. In the new film The 40-Year-Old Version, writer-director Radha Blank has created a winning movie that follows a woman of color coming to terms with her art, her life, and her voice with honesty and wit.
The pic opens on Radha’s neighborhood and life. Teaching, eavesdropping on the neighbors and attempting to find a black theatre that will stage a workshop of her play without changing it. Radha’s bestie, Archie (Peter Y. Kim) is a producer who works for a very successful, very white producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney) who might be interested, pending some changes to the script. Meanwhile, Radha decides to get back to one of her earlier passions in rapping. Torn, she must struggle with finding the balance pf paying the rent and staying true to her artistic voice.
The production is pretty bare-bones, lending to its raw tone. Shot in black and white with a Verite feel, the movie plays part documentary with first-person interviews and insert shots, and part comedy-drama. Recalling the early days of Spike Lee, The 40-Year-Old Version approaches the artist’s battle and finding life after 40 with charm, humor, and honesty. Radha’s script bursts out of the gate with a riotous series of moments in an average day trying to get to work, getting to work only to have a fight break out in class, and having a hilariously tenacious student hit on her. Then the pic settles down a bit as her struggles come to the fore and Radha tries in earnest to find her center.
“The eternal struggle between art and commerce is nothing compared to the impending age of 40.”
Perhaps my one note, if any, would be length. While Blank keeps every arch in check, some of them take a bit of time to get there. The end of act 2 lags a bit as Radha faces the tough choices between integrity and commerce while rehearsing her workshop play. I will forgive it though because some of it is straight-up hilarious. As they are rehearsing a play about Harlem gentrification Radha tirelessly fights the producer’s tendencies to push the play into “poverty-porn” territory. Still, they insist on hip-hop numbers and ending the show with a sudden blackout and gunshot. Priceless.
Everything comes together and this film really is a joy to watch. In every scene, Blank’s work shines as a writer, a director and as an actor. Her relentless charisma and authenticity tinged with wit carry every scene of the film, making it a joy to witness. This is the arrival of a talented voice in indie film.
The 40-Year-Old Version screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.