A special guest review to the LnD Report by Joana Kosowsky Dane
After reading half a sentence about the film “40-Year-Old Version,” I knew I needed to see it.
Radha Blank plays herself, missing her dead mother, unable to return her brother’s phone calls. She is chronically late to the after-school theatre class she teaches where one of the girls, frustrated with Miss B’s indifference to her heartfelt spoken word, calls her washed up, a fake. It stings more than the girl knows. Radha had higher expectations for her art, no doubt. Her name is on the 30 Under 30 Playwright’s Award that sits among the clutter on her dresser. But now she’s 40, with that all-too-familiar reality facing aging artists: What do I have to show for this life I’ve lived?
Filmed in black and white, we follow Radha on a journey through New York – Harlem and the Bronx and a brief foray on Broadway – the camera in close, capturing all the details of her pain and her comedy. She glances at the camera and we know exactly how she’s feeling about D, the guy who lays down beats for anyone willing to bring him a bag of weed; or about J. Whitman, a famous producer who is willing to give Radha a big break but only if she compromises the integrity of her play by turning the characters into racial stereotypes.
What’s an aging artist to do?
Interspersed are color photographs explaining years of back story in a single flash (like the one of Radha and her gay agent, dancing together at her high school prom); and postcard sized snippets of interviews with characters from the neighborhood giving blunt and hilarious commentary on Radha’s middle-aged life.
She’s down, but not so far down that she can’t grasp inspiration when it strikes, rapping one afternoon about all the ailments that come with being 40. “Why my ass always horny? Why I always gotta pee? Why a young boy on the bus offer his seat to me? Why my skin so dry? Why am I yawning right now? Why them AARP niggers sending shit to my house?” She catches the ear of the elusive D who invites her to perform her piece Poverty Porn at his next showcase. She fails hard. But we see what the past 10 years have taught her, a resilience that comes when an artist keeps creating despite being crushed and ignored.
D takes her on a long drive, to a Queen of the Ring competition where 4 women battle with their rhymes in a stark boxing ring. Radha is awed by their raw power and their courage. They show her how it’s done, and in turn, she shows us. Keep doing, stay brave.
Radha goes to see her brother. Trying to figure out what to do with one of their mom’s numerous paintings that neither have room for, her brother says it will just have to go into storage. “Wow. You come here with a dream, and your work ends up in storage,” says Radha, a pitiful conclusion to an artist’s life. Her brother sees it differently. “She did what she wanted. She was a teacher, a curator. She chanted, she traveled, she did some art. She lived a life.” Her children, their mother always said, were her greatest creation.
Radha realizes the reward is not in the big production, but in the much smaller daily task of staying true to her art. And when she does, she wins the admiration of her theatre students, though she won the viewers’ admiration long before that.