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MOVIE REVIEW

‘The Forty-Year-Old Version,’ on Netflix, makes a milestone birthday memorable

Radha Blank in "The 40-Year-Old Version."
Radha Blank in "The 40-Year-Old Version."Jeong Park/Sundance Institute via AP


Arriving on Netflix after making a splash and taking a prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” stakes a congenial and pointed claim for writer-director Radha Blank as a new voice in American movies. Well, maybe not new: The main character, also called Radha and played by Blank, is hitting middle age in a creative and personal tailspin, and the dilemma feels as though it were awfully close to the bone.

Blank has a big, broad face that can crinkle in humorous disbelief or shut down with wariness; she wears an African head scarf as a combination statement of identity and wall of defense. The movie, her debut, lightly fictionalizes her experiences as a playwright and comedian in New York and her struggle to be true to who she is and where she’s from while avoiding getting pigeonholed as a “Black woman writer.”

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Said pigeonholing includes being expected to crank out poverty porn or celebrations of historic Black women; one of the better running jokes here is a rumored musical in development about Harriet Tubman, or Ida B. Wells, or maybe it’s Shirley Chisholm. Blank just wants to write about whatever she wants, same as a white writer, and it’s not happening for her. Ten years earlier, she was named one of “30 Under 30” promising playwrights. Now she’s pushing 40 and teaching students in a rowdy high school writing class.

Reed Birney and Radha Blank in "The Forty-Year-Old Version."
Reed Birney and Radha Blank in "The Forty-Year-Old Version." Jeong Park/Netflix via AP

The movie, shot in lustrous black-and-white by Eric Branco, covers a few months in which the main character’s problems and projects come to a head. Her agent and best friend since high school, Archie (Peter Kim), has got Radha an in with a powerful Broadway producer, played with breezy Caucasian entitlement by New York stage actor Reed Birney. He’ll take her play, set in and around a grocery store in Harlem, but only if she adds a trendy gentrification subplot and some angry rappers.

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Ironically, Radha has started exploring rap for herself, if only to vent her frustrations with life and work. This leads to some very funny sequences at a smoky Brownsville apartment studio run by a beat master named D (Oswin Benjamin), who regards this interloper first as a curio, then as a talent, then as something more. The tenderness and humor of these scenes seem as much of a surprise to the characters as to the audience.

Peter Kim in "The Forty-Year-Old Version."
Peter Kim in "The Forty-Year-Old Version." Jeong Park/Netflix via AP

Meanwhile, Radha’s students are putting on their own play — it involves a character named, uh, Queen Vagina — and there are small dramas to iron out with a disaffected student (Imani Lewis) and others. The heroine’s relationship with her manager-friend also takes a beating as Radha resists changes to her own show made by a painfully “woke” white director (Welker White of “Goodfellas”).

That’s a lot of plot, and at two hours-plus “The Forty-Year-Old Version” overstays its welcome. But it does so with hard-won charm and a handful of original moments on the way: a boxing-ring battle of rhymes among four ferocious women rappers, memories of a bohemian childhood in which the screen blooms into a scrapbook of color, photos, and art, and a pretty dreadful Harlem-set musical that I think is Blank’s skewering of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”

All in all, quite impressive for a debut. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 40 years for the next one.

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★★★

THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION

Written and directed by Radha Blank. Starring Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin. On Netflix. 129 minutes. R (pervasive language, sexual content, some drug use, and brief nudity).




Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.