In more ways than one, Horror Month fizzled out this year. Admittedly, our film choices were somewhat disappointing; however, the horror of our global situation is more at fault for overshadowing any and everything fictional. Especially as things look increasingly bleak heading towards winter and the holidays, my brain craves stories that have virtually no connection to the pandemic. Cue this week’s pick.
The Forty-Year-Old Version
Approaching her 40th birthday, a Brooklyn playwright attempts to balance the pressure for traditional markers of success with the freedom to find and pursue new passions.
Thirty-nine-year-old Radha is restless. A playwright who was honored with a “30 Under 30” award a decade ago, Radha has seemingly failed to live up to her potential. She doesn’t have a single play in production, and the bulk of her connection to theater is through a class she teaches for teens. Some of the teens are more interested in attending than others, and there is very often interpersonal rather than staged drama going down.
Along with bff Archie, who also represents her, Radha is hard at work getting her play Harlem Ave off the ground. After striking out with a visionary but underfunded Black theater director, Radha reluctantly turns to a white audience to back her work. The play, following the challenges of a Black grocery store owner and his wife in a gentrifying neighborhood, doesn’t ring of poverty porn enough to get immediate backing. Radha may be able to get the play produced…but there will be a lot of artistic compromises along the way.
Meanwhile, Radha has a growing interest in writing and performing rap, inspired by everything from her relationship with her mother to white men with especially full behinds (“WMWBWB”). After deciding to make a mixtape, Radha hits it off with music producer D. She even scores an invite to perform at an open mic night, but blows it when she attempts to soothe her nerves by getting high.
As Radha grows closer to D, they bond over the ongoing pain of losing their mothers. At the same time, Radha pushes him away as she increasingly feels that, rapidly approaching 40, she should stay in her lane.
A similar conflict threatens Radha’s relationship with Archie, who pushes her to mainstream success that makes her feel she has sold out. With an opening night for a play that no longer feels like her own work rapidly approaching, Radha can’t make peace with her life as a struggling artist…can she?
4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
The script alone is incredible, but Radha Blank also directs, stars, and writes many of the songs for this film. As a Brooklyn filmmaker considering, among other themes, Blackness, gentrification, and the purpose of art, there’s a clear connection to some of Spike Lee’s works here. However, Radha approaches these ideas from a Black feminist perspective, highlighting aging, age differences, and body image.
Though Radha is very much the focus of the film, other characters have identities and agency, including bff Archie and the teens Radha works with. I love the relationships here; there is genuine tension over whether Archie and Radha have outgrown their friendship and working relationship. The dynamic Radha has with her students is quite sweet too, and feels real. It’s never an easy relationship as the teens push back, though they resist being reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes of a “tough” urban school.
The humor is so sharp (Harlem Ave‘s soy milk fixation gets me every time), but we also explore grief and existential angst with tenderness. As Radha herself tells us, “Don’t think just because you created something people will appreciate it.” The creation of art for her, her mother, and other makers, must come from the satisfaction of doing something for one’s self, not for the external markers of success–a deceptively difficult lesson to learn.