There are few things more rewarding about being a film critic than coming across a film that takes you by complete surprise. In a time when critics race to be the first ones to post their reaction to a screening sometimes months before a film’s release, it’s nearly impossible to go into a movie without already knowing everything about it, including whether you are supposed to like it or not. So maybe part of the reason why I was able to enjoy the new film Forty-Year-Old Version so much was the fact that I didn’t know much about it. But most of why I loved this film was because it just kicks ass in every way.
A personal passion project by writer/director/star Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version is an ode to self-awareness, a tribute to anyone who has struggled to find their voice. In this age of “influencers” and people who literally are famous just for being famous, I basked in the glow of a film about an artist genuinely trying to find a way to express herself through art. In this semi-autobiographical story, Blank plays herself, struggling through a crisis of confidence as she nears her 40th birthday. Facing the fact that her career as a playwright never picked up much steam since having been declared one of the “30 under 30” writers to watch, she is faced with a choice, whether to continue pursuing her dream and risk not being able to pay her rent or become a writer-for-hire in order to pay the bills. As she faces some serious life choices, she stumbles onto the cathartic elements of rapping and decides to re-invent herself as the rapper RadhaMUSprime.
While there is nothing groundbreaking here, the pleasure comes from being invited into the world of this charming, hilarious and profoundly aware human being, who is authentic and vibrant, sensitive and cunning, world-weary yet steadfast. Shooting in black-and-white, Blank’s approach looks and feels bare bones, as raw as the New York City that is as much a character in this film as she is. The film is as much about New York as it is anything else, about the dreams it tempts with, the cultural and social chasms it battles, and the people who reflect all of its edges, frailties and personality.
But it is in Radha Blank’s charm and hesitant self-confidence that The Forty-Year-Old Version finds its foothold and really soars. Grounded in honesty and an acceptance of who she is and where she comes from, Blank fights for the chance to prove what she knows she is capable of, while displaying a sense of humor that belies her hesitation to jump feet first. It is a remarkable commentary on an artist’s internal battle between self-respect and survival.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is a feature film debut of a talent, both in front of and behind the camera, that I can’t wait to see more of, a film deserving to be seen and appreciated for all its warmth, humor, authenticity and hope that makes it easily one of the best films of the year. It’s on Netflix, so you have no excuses.