Making movies about creativity is difficult; making them about creative frustration is harder still. Radha Blank accomplishes just that with her new film, The 40-Year-Old Version, debuting on Netflix today. It follows a playwright stuck in a years-long rut, searching for new ways to express herself. Her journey is difficult, and Blank is invested in showing just how hostile the artistic world can be to someone like herself, a Black female artist uninterested in the grim material her industry wants from her. But The 40-Year-Old Version depicts all that frustration with bubbly, knowing wit; it’s a breezy comedy about not knowing what to do with your life.
As writer, director, and star, Blank doesn’t shy away from the film’s autobiographical properties, even picking a cutesy title that’s half-homage, half-razz to the similarly self-reflective oeuvre of Judd Apatow (whose debut film was The 40-Year-Old Virgin). She even copied his propensity for long running times, making a plot-light comedy that goes on for 129 minutes. And why not? If Apatow can meander jokily through the lives of restless, flawed 40-somethings for more than two hours, why can’t Blank? This movie doesn’t follow the Hollywood-friendly narrative of suddenly experiencing great success against all odds. It is more interested in the little details and is all the better for it.
Radha (which I’ll call the character to distinguish from the real-life Blank) lives in Harlem, balancing her playwright dreams with teaching high-school theater. She was once placed on “30 under 30” lists, but unlike the real Blank (who has written for shows such as Empire), she has little to show for her early success. Her best friend, Archie (played by Peter Y. Kim), drags her to theater events to schmooze, but every conversation with the preening producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney) involves him beseeching Blank to lean into the “darkness” of Harlem or collaborate with him on a Harriet Tubman musical.
The movie is something of a love letter to Harlem, but rather than rendering her neighborhood in the bright, vibrant visuals one might expect, Blank shoots it in grainy black-and-white 35-millimeter film. The style is visually reminiscent of Spike Lee’s blistering debut, She’s Gotta Have It (Blank also wrote for that TV spin-off) but pays homage to the great Black photographer Roy DeCarava as well. The effect homes in on the characters’ faces and blurs the detail around them to focus on small nuances—a shaggy, vérité approach that helps the characters feel like real people.
Eventually, overcome with frustration, Radha starts dabbling in a teenage obsession of hers: freestyle rapping. She strikes up a friendship with D (the appealingly laid-back newcomer Oswin Benjamin), a local DJ who says Radha has some talent, and she performs in the less cloistered artistic space of underground rap battles. But Radha doesn’t suddenly storm to superstardom in a smooth narrative of rags-to-riches success. The only real power that comes with rapping is her ability to be entirely herself.
The producer, Whitman, eventually seizes on Radha’s latest play, a drama about a Black couple called Harlem Ave. He workshops it into the kind of “poverty porn” Radha has no interest in, and forces her to inject villainous white characters into the script, “to give the core audience a way into the play,” Whitman explains. In upsetting but truthful scenes, the work is staged for mostly white audiences, who revel in the faux-authenticity on display. In The 40-Year-Old Version, Radha’s struggles are tied in with the gentrification of Black art, and the limited avenues she has to produce something both commercial and authentic.
That’s why it’s heartening that the movie, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where Blank won a directing award), will be available on Netflix to a wide audience of subscribers. The film is not gritty, unvarnished, or hard to watch; it’s an easygoing, charming work, buoyed by Blank’s excellent lead performance and suffused with snappy jokes and sparkling supporting turns. If it’s occasionally too meandering, that’s part of the point: Radha is still looking for the best way to live her creative life, and sometimes that involves taking the long way around.