“Write what you know!” As often as that maxim is bandied about as an honest suggestion, a genuine bit of good-faith advice, it’s used as an artistic crutch, a shield against meaningful creative thought. Not so in The Forty-Year-Old Version, New Yorker Radha Blank’s feature directorial debut, though not – as this film shall duly educate you – her dramatic debut. The distillation of years’ worth of toil in NYC’s theater scene, this is perhaps the archetypal case of a troubled artist taking those troubles and spinning them into their art. Such self-reflection is popular, even commonplace among playwrights and filmmakers like Blank, indeed creatives of all kinds, since what better subject for an artist than their own beloved self. What keeps the autobiographical mode from becoming a crutch, then, is a combination of elements: earnestness, self-awareness (not just self-reflection) and the crucial meaning in “meaningful creative thought.”

Gratifyingly, Blank is wise to that combination and The Forty-Year-Old Version exhibits her wisdom in generous, unpretentious fashion. Aside from the film’s frequent, fabulously unsubtle swipes at modern dramatic theater’s notorious pomposity, Blank shows a sharp grasp of dramaturgy throughout, in what amounts to a quite remarkable feat for a first time behind the camera, not least because she’s also in front of it – front and center in almost every scene. She pulls off the difficult task of balancing her tone between palpably realistic and overtly comical – just enough to make you laugh, but never so much that you feel detached from the diegesis. Here is the film’s earnestness, plainly laying itself out on the screen for all to see, whether pushing 40 or not. And if it’s not quite “warts-and-all,” well, who wants that kind of indulgent exhibitionism anyway?

Blank plays herself here, the plot comprising an amalgamation of a number of experiences in her late thirties as she struggles to navigate the uncertainties of life as a professional playwright and woman of color. She has no problem expressing herself artistically, she just has plenty of problems with how others would have her express herself. Commissions such as a Harriet Tubman musical are, understandably, a choking offense. A business associate contacts their ancestors for guidance; upon receiving the dubious feedback that the ancestors’ concerns lie not with commercial interests, Blank wonders if her ancestors really wouldn’t have wanted her to pay her rent. A homeless man (Jacob Ming-Trent) across the street from her petite Harlem apartment seems to taunt her with his existence alone. Actually, he just taunts her outright, Blank giving Ming-Trent some of the script’s funniest lines.

That’s a big part of what makes The Forty-Year-Old Version work. It’s consistently funny, without losing the necessary tether to emotional truthfulness to maintain our interest in Blank’s life. It’s her sense of humor, however, that makes the narrative’s central development palatable – in a moment of apprehensive inspiration, she decides to pursue rapping, putting her playwriting skills to musical use with some social commentary rhyming. It’s corny, yes, but winningly corny. It’s a stretch too, but it’s genuine, since it happened in real life as well as on screen. What’s more, Blank’s a terrific rapper, and even if her lines don’t exactly scream chart success, that’s maybe only a reflection of the quality of what’s permitted to constitute commercial success.

In the end, Blank’s message – a predictable one about staying true to oneself and following one’s own path through life, though put across very persuasively – doesn’t entirely ring true with the sense of realism imbued in her debut feature. Movie-version Blank may get to hang onto her integrity in the face of the theater scene’s fawning pressure, but real-life Blank only earned the opportunity to express herself artistically with such freedom and openness after all those years of struggling. If Blank is telling all her fellow female playwrights of color and any other artists who feel a kinship with her to hang in there, The Forty-Year-Old Version maybe functions better as fantasy than unflinching reality. But then, she’s earned the right to do this, not just the opportunity. Just like she’s earned the right to a 26-year-old as her love interest. Writing about what you know is just half the story. The real artists know how to write about what they want everyone else to know, because they’ve got something to say and they want us to hear it. And if this is the kind of stuff a free, open, unrestricted Radha Blank wants to say to us, with commerce taken care of (hopefully!), we’ll keep listening.

This version may not be the most original, but it’s impressively authentic. All eyes and ears on Miss B!
70 %
Rapper’s Delight
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