PARK CITY – A movie centered on someone in a mid-life crisis attempting something out of the box to recharge themselves isn’t particularly “fresh” these days, especially in the world of American independent cinema. Reading the logline of “The 40-Year-Old-Version,” which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival today, you might wonder if the directorial debut of Radha Blank could bring anything new to this familiar genre. I mean, a film about a 40-year-old struggling playwright deciding she wants to become a hip-hop artist? We know where this feel-good story must be headed, right? You can almost see the trailer in your head before you see the movie itself. Thankfully, Blank is here to surpass your expectations.
Blank, a critically acclaimed playwright who has written for episodic programs such as FOX’s “Empire” and Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” appears to be essentially playing a less successful version of herself. The Radha on-screen is at a crossroads. She was named to a prestigious “30 under 30” list but has barely gotten anything noteworthy made since as she earns most of her income from teaching high school students in an afterschool writing program. Her most recent work, “Harlem Ave,” is set up at an African-American centric theater group with an eccentric artistic director, Forest (Andre Ward), who seems to have little motivation to actually get it up and running. Meanwhile, her agent and longtime best friend, Archie (Peter Y. Kim), is trying to jumpstart her career by cozying up to a bigshot Broadway producer, Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), who is uncomfortably less woke than he thinks he is.
After she endures a disastrous discussion with Whitman about her work at a public event, Radha hits what she thinks is rock bottom. Things are so bad in her eyes even her students are mocking her inability to get a new show off the ground. Recalling that she could always rap with the best of them when she was younger, Radha is spurred to try something different under the name RadhaMUSprime (sure, why not) and she seeks out a music producer whose beats she’s become enamored with on Instagram. That artist turns out to be the quiet but curious D. Possible (real-life hip-hop artist Oswin Benjamin), who hears something in Radha’s verses that’s more sophisticated than his usual collaborators. She already has one foot in a new world when Archie pulls off a miracle by somehow convincing Whitman to reconsider her play. Radha then has to decide what dream she truly wants to pursue and, yes, at what cost.
Again, you might be thinking this set up feels awfully familiar. And, in many respects, it is. The difference, however, is that Blank is at the center of it. Not only as an actor (to say she’s an on-screen “discovery” isn’t hyperbolic enough) but as a writer as well. Blank knows exactly what narrative territory she’s in and uses the dramatic conflicts at bay to make a number of decidedly funny and oh, so painful points.
No doubt many people in the theater world and entertainment in general, have met someone like Whitman. An older, white male producer with an ego that can barely be contained and a perspective on race that should be kept miles away from any financier with a checkbook. His notes transform Radha’s work on gentrification in Harlem into a bland tale that somehow asks the audience to have sympathy for the rich white woman who just wants a corner store that stocks soy milk. As the movie progresses, Blank eviscerates him at every twist and turn with Birney’s slightly creepy performance providing a major assist.
Blank also has no intention of letting Archie come off as the stereotypical wealthy gay whose priorities seem centered on acquiring new thongs for a Grecian holiday. Archie pushes back at Radha and pushes back hard. She’s in such a funk she can’t comprehend how much he believes in her, even if she’s aware of the sacrifices he’s made to put her in the spotlight.
Mostly though, Blank comes for her own on-screen persona. “The 40-Year-Old-Version” is more about Radha being forced to coming to grips with finding her own voice as an artist than compromising for a structure that isn’t interested in what she really wants to say. It’s a life crisis for sure, But Radha could have endured it five years earlier or 10 years down the road. Now that doesn’t mean the movie can’t have fun with familiar tropes so Radha can finally find some romance in her life or realize how much her students are rooting for her. Those things might just happen. But, maybe a title that sounds a bit too much like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” could use a rewrite. And maybe debuting it in black and white might hurt its chances to find a wider audience that could appreciate it. But remember Radha Blank’s name cause, for real, this is the start of something big. [B+]