DULUTH — This is Radha Blank’s moment, and like her character in “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” it’s been a while since she had one.
In the writer and director’s semi-autobiographical film, Blank is a Black playwright who is bordering on has-been, and she’s grieving her mother’s death.
She teaches theater to teens, who hurl insults — and passes — at her. Struggling to get her next play off the ground, Blank stumbles upon an old pastime in rapping hip-hop, and part of the allure is she can tell her story without gatekeepers, critics or BS.
This film pulls much from Blank’s real life. She’s a playwright, and a TV writer for “Empire” and Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It.” She has a rapping persona, RadhaMUS Prime, the star of Blank’s web series that inspired this film.
Rarely do audiences see a woman of color in a leading role, telling the truth about declining knees, raging hormones, weight and AARP flyers.
Blank plays her self-deprecating self with humility, vulnerability and confidence.
During her first recording session, she’s at one moment awkward, dropping her notebook, adjusting her jacket. In the next seconds, she busts into the mic like a boss: “No happy Blacks in the plot lines, please. But a crane of Big Mama crying on her knees. … This is poverty porn.”
As Blank works with producer D (Oswin Benjamin), her creative awakening stirs inspiration in him.
In his acting debut, Benjamin does a solid job of portraying a melting front of indifference and apathy to Blank’s candidness. Blank’s longtime bestie and agent, Archie, is played by Peter Kim (“After Forever”), and their on-screen energy easily communicates a history of trust, comfort and honesty.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” won the grand jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, and Blank snagged the dramatic directing award.
In her directorial debut, Blank opts for stark black and white, adding snapshots of the understated: Black women on a porch, women in hijabs walking in a park, kids playing basketball. She frames a scene of emotional intimacy through a reflection, as if to give the characters some space.
Blank steers stylistically during musical moments. The lens draws close to her face, swarming around her as she raps, and during a Queen of the Ring rap battle.
Her style is reminiscent of Spike Lee and Woody Allen, and it’s refreshing to be submerged in the canon of Black-made art and creatives through placement of a Toni Morrison bag, a comparison to “Miss Sofia after jail,” and so on.
The film’s name is a play on the 2005 comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and right away, Blank establishes this film’s fearlessness and humor.
In the opening scene, Blank is rustled awake by the sound of her neighbors having sex. She squishes her ear against the wall to get a better listen before hearing them stop their sex to sob.
“I was appropriating his title,” she said of Judd Apatow’s film in an interview. “I guess the commentary would be that there should be people who look like me in stories like his.”
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” examines the struggle of storytelling. It questions success and introduces a new kind of heroine to get behind.
Starring: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin
Director/screenwriter: Radha Blank
Rating: R for language, some sexuality and drug use