Two New Yorkers come together due to unlikely circumstances and form a romantic bond that is challenged by their own strong personalities. It’s a story we’ve seen many times before on the screen, from Annie Hall to Moonstruck to When Harry Met Sally, it is a familiar setting for a familiar story. But writer/director Rachel Israel has found a truly unique take on the genre with her new film.
In Keep the Change, Israel has shifted the focus of the story to adults with autism. After trying to bond with a cop by telling inappropriate jokes, David (Brandon Polansky) is court ordered to attend a support group for adults who have autism or other learning disabilities. At first he has no interest in being there, and puts up a wall of dismissiveness. He considers the others at the group to be “freaks” and they annoy him with their “weirdness.” But David’s relatively high level of function is a blessing and a curse. He can “pass” for neuro-typical, especially in the world of online dating, but his lack of social awareness renders him unable to actually form lasting relationships. Sometimes it is inappropriate jokes that make things go awry, or the way he can get attached to someone too quickly, or the weird noises he makes when he is faced with sensory overload. He is lonely, but his mother (Jessica Walter) doesn’t seem to see him as an adult. Of course his parents care for him and worry about his future, but they are coddling rather than challenging him.
David starts to soften towards everyone in the class after an assignment where he is paired with Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), one of the more outgoing members of the group. One of her tics is filling her sentences with rabid colloquialisms, and brevity escapes her completely. While she has similar social issues to David, her adventurousness and openness to other people encourages him to try new things. For example, since David’s family is wealthy, he is able to use a driver and taxis, while Sarah is proficient at riding the bus (at least if she is familiar with her start and end points). There is room for both of them to grow as people while they bond on their dates.
In their relationship, they go through all of the expected movements of courtship, but they face plenty of their own challenges well. David’s family isn’t sure what to make of things, and Sarah’s history within the support group both come into play. But the film’s tone is sweet without being needlessly saccharine, showing a kindness to the main characters, as well as giving them unique issues and personalities.
Keep the Change is a charming film, but knowing the context behind the film deepened my appreciation for it. Polansky is autistic himself, and Israel specifically crafted the film around him, and ultimately casting other actors who aren’t neuro-typical to fill out the cast, including Elisofon. While the film is scripted, Israel also used her actors’ natural tendencies to bring as much authenticity to the film as possible via improvisation. Make no mistake, these actors are playing characters, but their candid reactions bring a completeness to the film in a way that actors only pretending to be wired this way rarely bring to the screen.
And Israel’s deep empathy for the actors is abundantly clear. The film is basically told from their point of view, and helps the audience to understand what it is like to walk in their shoes, to face their fears and hopes and challenges. We pick up on the way that their families treat them, sometimes with unintended condescension or a distance because of uncertainty. The film becomes an unfiltered portrait of an autistic person’s life, but thankfully never veers into maudlin ‘message’ territory. It remains a sweet romantic comedy that is also an honest view, celebrating those who live with autism for being who they are.
But while Keep the Change is special for its approach to its cast, the film is also a well-made cinematic experience. Being filmed on location bring it into the ranks of the great New York movies, showing off both landmarks and general ambiance of the city with reinforces the authenticity within. It is important to show the characters in a real environment in order to give the film more than a mere patina of authenticity.
Keep the Change is easy to recommend to fans of The Florida Project and unusual romantic comedies, and seeing it presented theatrically as part of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival is going to be a memorable experience for sure. For more about the making of the film, I recommend this LA Times article.
Keep the Change screens Wednesday, November 15 at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Tickets and screening details here.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.