The Forty-Year-Old Version is a grown woman’s coming of age story.
Radha Blank wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the semi-autobiographical comedy. It follows a down-on-her-luck NY playwright struggling to achieve her breakthrough before she turns 40. When her last chance at success is throttled, she reinvents herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime.
I crested the 40-year mark seven years ago. For women of my generation, life was divided between youth’s potential and the reckoning of aging. Forty is the demarcation line. You are no longer who you were, and you haven’t learned to become who you really are.
That sweet spot is explored in the Forty-Year-Old Version.
Radha clings to a version of herself as an emerging, successful playwright. However, the compromises required to accomplish mainstream success means betraying the authenticity of her work. Though driven by desperation, Radha rediscovers her love of language and vivid storytelling through Hip Hop. She reconfigures the DNA of her art and creates her true voice.
Radha’s mother’s death, which happens before the events of the film, leaves her rudderless. Who is she now that her mother, whose artistic legacy Radha embraces and rejects, is gone?
Radha struggles beneath the same American Dream that chokes all of us. It’s a misguided belief that success is a never-ending curve that arches upward. If we don’t have a flourishing career, loving marriage, flush bank account, and beautiful home by the time we’re 40, then something is wrong with us.
We believe that successful people are successful because they made all of the right decisions. Their success is attributed to some inherent wisdom, quality, or character that made their success possible. But that’s not how life works. Parents die. Marriages fail. Jobs end. A global pandemic wrecks entire economies and ways of being.
It’s what you do when you don’t get what you want that determines your character. This is where the real growing up begins.
Radha occasionally loses faith but never gives up on herself or the people she cares about. She learns to trade in the life map, telling her where she should be for a compass that directs her to her true north. Radha risks ridicule, mainstream success, and friendship and bets on herself.
In previous decades, Queen Latifah or Monique would have played Radha for laughs. But scenes that could have been played strictly for laughs – the mocking, playful vacillation between theater and Hip Hop – add poignancy to the humor. There is a haunting sadness in these scenes that make them feel mature without losing their sparkle.
Shot in black and white, the film adopts a mockumentary style and nods to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. Neighborhood characters such as a homeless man living across the street, an Auntie dispensing wisdom like dime-bags, a bodega owner, and a barista animate the city of Harlem, which serves as the film’s setting and extra character. Radha also showcases rappers who delight in their craft, love of wordplay, and authentic self-expression.
Other characters in Radha’s orbit, such as her gay best friend, love interest, students, and brother, ground the film in the familiar rom-com territory without compromising its essence. Unlike most rom-coms, there is no real villain in the story, save Radha’s self-doubt and fears.
The Forty-Year-Old Version serves a middle-aged reckoning with a heart. While we may no longer believe in happily-ever-after, watching the film allows us to believe that anything is still possible even after 40.