No matter how much we are told that age is just a number, the TV series Friends (1994-2004) still hit a nerve with its episode ‘The One Where They All Turn Thirty’, scarring quite a few of us. Rachel Green, played by Jennifer Aniston, who really does not (and should not?) have anything to complain about, looking ever so pretty, wearing a white tee, and a golden paper crown, spends the entire episode whingeing about her life choices and the absence of a stable partner.
In stark contrast to this standard for the the infamous “other side of thirty” is, however, Radha Blank’s The Forty-Year-Old Version. Sitting quietly in the Netflix algorithm for about five months now, the film premiered at Sundance last January. It is neither as popular as Friends, which was released in the nineties, trended in the noughties, and has managed to occupy popular culture for the last three decades, nor as lauded as the streaming platform’s other 2020 heavyweights like I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Mank, or The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The eponymous character is a playwright, managed by a dashing agent who is gay. She has written something, but her white producer wants to make the suffering more visibly Black. Radha couldn’t care less; not about Black suffering, but about how he wants her to portray it for his white audience. She might have to give in, though, if she has to make some money. She is turning forty. Unlike Rachel, Radha was awarded a ’30 under 30’ prize, made of real metal and glass, not paper and glitter.
But she has been struggling since then and trying to make ends meet like any other artist. She wakes up late in the morning, almost misses the bus, but makes it to her high school, where she is teaching drama to high school students. Here, the film becomes a New York film, not unlike these two other films that came out last year: Sofia Coppola’s charming On the Rocks (Apple TV+) and Pixar’s searching yet lovely Soul (Disney+ Hotstar).
Rachel’s suffering was, to an extent, understandable. Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, is known for calling the conflict between the ages of 18 and 40 “intimacy versus isolation“: he called the individuals young adults (quite different from the YA classification in books). The conflict before this stage, during adolescence, was labelled “identity versus role confusion“. You could argue, why does this twentieth-century white man think that identity is a crisis only during adolescence or intimacy a privileged struggle only during “young” adulthood in this digital age, and you would not be entire wrong. For many queer folk, Black folk, Dalit folk, people of minorities, identity is not a conflict limited to adolescence but a lifelong issue, and intimacy is a blessing.
The Forty-Year-Old Version doesn’t superficially tick these themes but deals with them head-on: race, sex, grief, friendship politics, body image, identity, passion, self-exploration, intimacy, and isolation – it has it all. Radha seems to have a healthy relationship with intimacy and isolation, moving onto the next stage of adulthood, “generativity versus stagnation“, but not fully having found answers or even wanting to for the conflicts of the previous stages, because as Oscar Wilde said much before Erik Erikson, “to define is to limit.” For a film to do all that, and do all that as well as it does, is something to be watched, appreciated, and recommended.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.