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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).