The 40-Year-Old-Version, loosely based on writer-director Radha Blank's own experiences, is one of the best depictions of midlife crisis ever put to film. It addresses the fears of those fast approaching their 40s who feel they haven't accomplished anything substantial. What if it’s a person of colour, especially a woman? One can only imagine the extreme anxiety levels.
When we see Radha (her character is also named the same) first, she is a dissatisfied playwright and teacher whose students don’t give her the deserved respect. She lives in an apartment in a predominantly black neighbourhood, where she gets bombarded with all kinds of unpleasant sights and sounds. She is looking for that one big break, but a lot of things stand in her way.
On one side, she has to deal with white theatre producers whose "poverty porn" ideas are beginning to bore her. She is also tired of youngsters who are always incorporating genitalia into their lyrics. She navigates one awkward encounter after another and one night, during a crying bout, it suddenly hits her: she could become a rapper. She has got the talent, and we get a taste of this in one electrifying scene.
But as any wise person would tell you, shifting gears at that age can bring its own set of problems and confusion. Her concerned manager, Archie (Peter Kim), doesn’t think it’s a good idea. He is trying his best to get Radha every opportunity she can get, even if it means begging the same people Radha can’t stand.
But, as Archie points out, the whole “us against the world” attitude can only take one so far. Speaking of Archie, he is an Asian gay man who once dated Radha — when he used to “pretend to like girls.” Archie is one of those rare, genuine souls we don’t get to see very often these days.
Following a chance encounter with a DJ, D (Oswin Benjamin), and a jamming session that goes wrong, Radha begins to question herself. Is hip hop what she really wants to do or should she stick with theatre? D, a young man in his 20s, also becomes a love interest. They both have something in common: the loss of their mother.
But Radha, the actor, filmmaker, and character, is not one to indulge in excessive displays of self-pity to elicit empathy. One of the best qualities of this character is her self-deprecatory humour. An attempt to come up with a witty retort to counter all the negativity around her keeps the film from going dark. The lines are as sharp as the lyrics she conjures up.
The struggle of the marginalised artist is nothing new, but it’s always nice to see a different filmmaker bring a fresh perspective to a familiar thread. And Radha does this so beautifully. Her film gives us a peek into a side of New York - the unglamorous side - that is rarely seen in cinema.
Save for some minute stretches in colour, this a film narrated mostly on gorgeous 35-mm black-and-white film (shot by cinematographer Eric Branco). It brings to mind Spike Lee’s debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, also a black-and-white film. I hope we get to hear Radha’s bold and confident voice more in the near future.
Cast: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin