Is there an expiry date on your hopes and dreams?
There shouldn’t be since, if you’re open to them, hopes and dreams should be the magical momentum that sustains you throughout the course of your life, but for Radha in The Forty-Year-Old Version, it is increasingly feeling like any chance of her superlatively imagined self being realised is fading with any possibility of her plays being produced in her authentic voice.
It wasn’t always that way; a scant decade ago, Radha, played by Radha Blank, who also wrote, produced and directed this black-and-white comedically-infused dramatic gem of a film, was one of the 30 young talents under 30 to watch.
A huge honour at the time, but in retrospect, also a massive albatross around her neck, with the once promising playwright teaching kids drama in school and forced to beg idiosyncratic playhouse to stage her creations for little to no actual money.
It’s not that she doesn’t love teaching the kids such as Elaine (Imami Lewis) and Rosa (Haskiri Velazquez), who are talented, enthusiastic (well, sort of and eventually more so), and in fact, her classroom scenes are a key part of the film’s meditatively arresting journey from a perceived nothingness to Radha’s life to an independently, fiercely-defended burgeoning something.
It’s more than that she finds herself closing in on a milestone birthday with her plays unproduced, her artistic dreams unfulfilled, fatter than she wants to be (a constant motif is the gulp cup full of dubious quality diet soda) and struggling with the death of her artist mother who she is acutely aware didn’t fulfill her grand and expansive ambitions artistic dreams either.
It’s the last aspect of Radha’s life and the trailing grief that follows her everywhere and soaks up all the incipient joy she has in her life thanks to best friend and agent Archie (Peter Kim) and possible new love D, a rap producer whom she finds on Instagram and who may be able to help realise her new found re-discovery of her prodigious rapping talents.
Her playwright dreams aren’t completely dead either with Archie brokering a deal with slimily manipulative theatrical producer J. Whitman (Reed Birney) but to get the play onto Broadway, with her authentic Black voice and message intact, she has to make so many compromises that any sense of realised vision feels squashed and lost in the clamour and bright lights of an otherwise successful opening night.
Radha is, by any measure, at a significant crossroads, and while you could argue that milestone birthdays don’t mean a thing in the long run, the reality is that focus our minds in a way lesser years birthdays simply don’t and try as we might to ignore the insistent voice within that we have failed and are at a time of reckoning, it becomes impossibly to shut down or quieten.
Although god knows Radha tries, pouring herself into the production of her artistically-emasculated plat Harlem Ave, about the effects of gentrification on her beloved home neighbourhood, pursuing her gift for poetically-dazzling inspired rapping with D who finally feels he has found a voice with something worthwhile to say, and trying to get the theatre kids at her weekly school sessions interested in writing and producing a play.
Nothing works, of course, because at her heart, Radha feels the clock ticking down with ruthless efficiency to the death of her artistic dreams, all too aware she is failing, like she feels her mother before her did, to realise all the promise of a decade earlier.
Written with a delightful mix of comedic verve and serious, thoughtful intent, The Forty-Year-Old Version is an ode to those dark place in our life where we feel we have lost the plot and we begin to wonder if it’s possible to get things back on track.
It captures with heartstopping honesty, and more laughs and wittily-improvised oneliners than you might expect, what it feels to face the perceived reality of a life shorn of its once-verdant promise and mired in a sense of futility and cloying grief, the kind that tells, with monotonous moroseness that you have failed in everything you have set your mind to.
That’s usually not true, and where it is, it’s also not the end of the road with all manner of possibilities usually still lying before you if you care to look, and the great strength and affecting power of the gloriously nuanced and quiet humour of The Forty-Year-Old Version is the way we journey with Radha to the place where she begins to understand this and takes some steps to reclaim her professional dreams, her personal hopes and her authentic voice as a Black woman creative with a host of important, worthwhile things to say.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is a singularly beautiful film – the black and white cinematography is arresting, not because it’s different from the norm but because it is used so effectively to create a special sense of time and place, both emotional and geographical, the dialogue is witty, thoughtful and believable, and Radha Blank shines as an extraordinary talent who has something to say and carefully-nuanced ways of saying it.
What also stands out in this film is the way in which grief and any compromises we make about who we authentically are can sap the joy and any sense of vibrant achievement from life.
There are no magic fixes in this regard – one of the funniest and yet most sobering scenes in the film is when Radha, reluctant to go to the opening of her bastardised play, finally interacts with the homeless man across the street who says there are no magic fixes in life and would it kill her to more mayo on the next sandwich she brings him – and The Forty-Year-Old Version doesn’t pretend there is.
But there are chances and possibilities aplenty that remain in life even when we feel we’re fresh out of them and The Forty-Year-Old Version shouts this life-changing perspective from the rooftops while couching its ramifications in a realistic setting that makes this wholly inspiring message feel livable and doable, authentic to the very core.