New Generation

Radha Blank
The Forty-Year-Old Version

A film with “Forty-Year-Old” in the title, by and about a 40-plus-year-old, perhaps doesn’t scream “New Generation,” but Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version epitomizes the spirit of the award in its climactic rap anthem “F.Y.O.V.” — an abbreviation of the title but also the lyric “find your own voice.”

In her autobiographical feature debut as writer, director, producer and star, Blank plays an eponymous New York playwright whose career hasn’t progressed as she’d have liked since winning a “30 Under 30” award “quite a couple years ago.” Creatively stymied by grief over the death of her mother and white gatekeepers who peddle in Black “poverty porn,” she’s teaching theater to high school kids who mock the upcoming workshop production of her play Harlem Ave.

Enter RadhaMUSprime, Radha’s hip-hop alter ego who raps about achy knees, AARP and middle-aged libido.

In plot as well as form, The Forty-Year-Old Version demos the persistence of creativity and essentiality of adaptation as Blank enters a second act as ambitious and vibrant as anything that came before. Shooting on old-school black-and-white 35mm, with occasional pops of attention-snapping color, the filmmaker layers in street interviews, play-within-a-movie interludes and funny asides like a DJ making beats.

Blank also surrounds herself with dynamic supporting characters with their own rich inner lives, not least of whom is Archie (Peter Kim), Radha’s agent and best friend since childhood who it feels at any moment could spin off into his own gritty New York drama.

But the main attraction is Blank herself, who’s at once funny and vulnerable, candid and pointed, a fresh yet mature talent who demonstrates with her first film that she has indeed found her own voice.

— Annlee Ellingson