An inspirational poster that says “Great People Do Great Things” sits inside the classroom where Radha (Radha Blank) teaches a drama class in “The 40-Year-Old Version,” and you suspect it’s been there since well before she got there and like a number of irritating things in her life that’s put up with as she’s nearing middle age, she hasn’t bothered to take it down. There’s some truth to it, of course, but also a large degree of bullshit as Radha has found out the hard way over the years as a playwright who can only get her work produced at the smallest of community theaters and in the knowledge that there must be a pretty thin veil between the Radha onscreen and the Radha behind the camera, making a ferocious feature directorial debut, you know the talent has always been there, even if the professional success hasn’t been.
“The 40-Year-Old Version” would be enough of a blast if only to rely on the sheer force of Blank’s personality, someone who ain’t having it anymore and has crafted her own “She’s Gotta Have It,” complete with a monochrome palette and the same soulful energy that made Spike Lee’s first feature as ruminative as it was funny. But Blank picks apart the system that made such a breakthrough impossible for years with surgical precision, making you think she‘d have a future ahead of her in medicine if it weren’t so bright as a writer/director/actress, though in “40-Year-Old Version,” her onscreen alter ego settles for rap, finding a creative outlet in spitting out verses when “Harlem Ave,” the play she’s been working on for years, has stalled out. It hasn’t been for a lack of trying on her part or that of her agent Archie (Peter Y. Kim), who has long declined a commission since Radha went to the prom as his date to prevent his father from knowing he was gay, and while she covered for him as he grew into his authentic self, he’s returned the favor for her as she appears headed for a mid-life crisis, wondering if protecting the sanctity of her work as an African-American woman in a world of white male investors has been worth the fact she’s been made to feel she doesn’t have much of an identity to begin with when her plays have gone unproduced.
Things could change with the intervention of Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), a Broadway producer whose woefully misguided creative instincts aimed at comforting liberal audiences run counter to the nuanced and challenging show Radha has created, but Blank is careful to show how much Radha gets in her own way as much as anyone else and as she starts opening up to other people without sacrificing what’s most important to her, namely the rap producer D (Oswin Benjamin) who supplies the beats for her rhymes in her off-hours, the film itself truly blossoms into something special.
At just over two hours, “The 40-Year-Old Version” can feel a little too leisurely paced at times and slightly uneven in tone when Archie and Josh can be a bit broad in contrast to the easygoing naturalism most of the film operates in, but Blank has created a world you want to spend time in and take in, complete with rap battles and drama workshops that clearly find humor in how authentically rendered they are and while it becomes clear that talent alone won’t win the day in “The 40-Year-Old Version” when so many other factors are at play, the film is a triumph by staying true to Blank’s distinctive voice.
“The 40-Year-Old Version” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26th at 6 pm at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre, January 27th at 8:15 am at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, January 28th at 9 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, January 31st at 12:15 pm at the Eccles Theatre in Park City and February 1st at 11:30 am at the MARC Theatre in Park City.