By Leah Greenblatt
October 09, 2020 at 04:11 PM EDT
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Credit: JEONG PARK/NETFLIX

No one ever really says how old an ingenue is allowed to be, though you probably have a pretty good idea. They don't, at least, tend to look like Radha (Radha Blank), a tired-eyed Harlem playwright who can't get a piece produced to save her life, and whose day is going well if the homeless man outside her window doesn't defecate before breakfast.

And yet The Forty-Year-Old Version — the semi-autobiographical breakout Blank wrote, directed, and stars in, now on Netflix — still feels like the work of one of the freshest new voices on film this year: a ramshackle, winningly raw coming-of-middle-age shot in vivid black and white but told in emotional Technicolor.

Once the winner of a 30 Under 30 Award, Blank's Radha hasn't so much squandered her potential as watch it drift, like a sad canoe. To make the rent, she teaches theater to a rowdy group of high-schoolers who have no problem reminding her of her lost potential. Even the pleas of her best friend, Archie (Peter Y. Kim), though, aren't enough to get her to sign on with a white producer (Reed Birney) eager to produce more of a very specific type of Black theater (or as she calls it with a whole-body shudder, "poverty porn").

Her mother is dead, the diet smoothies she can't stop sucking down aren't really doing the work, and her career, effectively, is roadkill. Then one night, her frustration comes out in metered rhymes — furious verses about period bloat, dry skin, and bad knees. And there's a lot more than sciatica hot-takes where that came from: When she finds a young aspiring producer (Oswin Benjamin) on Instagram who makes beats up in Brownsville, her creative muse begins to churn again.

The freestyling she unleashes as Radhamus Prime ("Aw s---, like Optimus?") is funny and profane and lacerating; a catalog of wrongs, regrets, and missed opportunities that pushes back at every oblivious bystander who ever asked her to write the stories they want to hear about Black lives. What Version isn't trying to be, though, is some kind of 8 Mile or Patti Cakes or Hustle & Flow, all those aspirational stories of zero-to-hero hip-hop triumph that Hollywood so loves to tell.

The movie is ultimately too messy and true for that, and much too smart. "See, this is about creating something that is mine," Radha tells a frankly disbelieving Archie. "Something that doesn't rely on critics or gatekeepers." Critics and gatekeepers, in fact, seem to love Version so far; Blank picked up a directing award at Sundance earlier this year, and Netflix reportedly paid seven figures for the distribution rights. If this is 40, let it come. B+

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