Keep the Change (released March 16, 2018, in the US and now playing in select theaters) has the same look and feel as any number of mainstream romcoms. A man from the Hamptons meets a quirky girl in the city, and after some initial setbacks, they eventually give into the transformative power of love and start falling for each other. As you watch them walk hand-in-hand on the boardwalk of Coney Island and face disapproving glares from their parents over dinner, you think: Haven’t I seen this already? You haven’t.
The protagonists David and Sarah—played by amateur actors Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon—may be white, straight, and (at least one of them) rich. Yet this debut from writer-director Rachel Israel manages to offer a fresh take on an otherwise tired genre by placing adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at its center.
This is not to say characters on the spectrum have never been shown in movies before. We all remember Dustin Hoffman as the poker-playing savant in Rain Man (1988) and Jodie Foster in her eponymous role in Nell (1994), earning them an Academy Award and nomination respectively.
But other than that, you have to look either to documentaries or streaming services to find more recent standouts such as Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated (2016) and the Netflix comedy series Atypical (2017). Every couple years, it seems, Hollywood remembers people with autism exist and devotes some screen time to telling their stories–although, as demonstrated by the examples above, such cinematic representations have been, for the most part, questionable at best.
Thankfully, Keep the Change is not a Hollywood production. Rachel Israel–who earned an MFA in Film from Columbia’s School of the Arts–developed the script first as a short film, before spending over three years on the festival circuit crowdsourcing a budget for a full-length feature. This is part of the reason why the film gets autism right. The other is due to the fact that the main actors are themselves on the spectrum and much of their dialogue is improvised. The result is a highly original and heart-wrenching portrayal that doesn’t just feature people with autism; it’s an entire love story specifically for and about them.
In place of genius-level IQs and flat affect, David and Sarah are complex characters who experience a range of emotions. The director puts their full humanity on display by showing them as people who are both flawed and sympathetic. In other words, they are allowed to exist authentically.
First, there is David, who meets Sarah through an autism support group in Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center. Though we never get the full backstory, we learn from his parents–with whom he shares a mansion on Long Island–that due to a prior brush with law enforcement, his participation in the program is not voluntary.
He reeks of privilege and unapologetically hurls around racist and sexist remarks. For example, he makes cringe-worthy jokes about rape, Muslims, and Jews on dates with women–all while being carted around by a chauffeur in a limo.
Similarly, David’s superior attitude towards his peers in the support group is exposed as yet another example of the elitism and internalized phobias inherited from his parents. Jessica Walter–reviving a nearly identical role as Lucille Bluth, the matriarch in the hit series Arrested Development–plays Carrie Cohen, David’s overbearing and judgmental mother. She coddles David and worries out loud in one scene: “Who’s going to take care of you when we’re gone?” During his convulsive fits, she responds with a mix of shame and derision.
Meanwhile, Sarah is a hopeless flirt who’s “only interested in sex.” Yet, unlike his mother, Sarah isn’t embarrassed by David’s involuntary tics. In one moving scene where David is overwhelmed with sensory overload from a carousel ride, Sarah stands by patiently while he regains composure. Without uttering a word, her face says: “I’m here and I understand you,” as she embraces him tightly.
While one could say the takeaway from this film is some universal truth about love and the nature of human relationships–that (surprise!) people on the spectrum are just like us neurotypical folks after all–such platitudes misinterpret the larger and more urgent story Israel is trying to tell. The message here is not that these characters are the same as us; rather, the film celebrates beauty in their difference.
David is drawn to Sarah not only because she treats him with compassion; she’s also completely aware of herself–an empowered foil to his denial and self-loathing. Walking Sarah to the bus stop after class one evening, he asks, “So what’s wrong with you anyway?”–to which she replies–“I have an LD.”
“What’s that… some kinda venereal thing?” he asks, in his typical socially clueless fashion. Sarah explains matter-of-factly, and without the slightest hint of embarrassment, that it stands for “learning disability.”
Whereas David has been socialized to downplay his difference, Sarah is unable–or, perhaps, even uninterested and unwilling–to hide hers. She is unashamed of herself and will not be pushed into the background by anyone. Whether performing in front of an audience on stage or before guests at a dinner party, Sarah demands to be seen, heard, and–more significantly–respected.
The most triumphant cinematic moment comes, however, when David defends Sarah against his mother’s opprobrium. Carrie wants David to date a girl “at a higher level” because she finds Sarah “weird.” David–finally able to see the contradiction in his mother’s bigotry–replies, “I like that she’s weird, mom. Because I’m weird, too.”
When I saw the film at the arthouse Roxie Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District, the audience nearly erupted in cheers during this scene. Admittedly, I wanted to clap, too, not just because I identified with David’s open defiance of parental authority–Who wouldn’t?–but on a more profound level it felt like a win for queerness in the broadest sense of the term.
This year’s Oscars were dominated by talk of diversity–whether in acceptance speeches, musical performances, or even a video montage featuring women, people of color, and LGBT folks in showbiz. In no uncertain terms, the Academy made an explicit appeal for a new era of representation in Hollywood–one where stories told exclusively for, by, and about white, straight, cis men is over. (Inclusion riders, anyone?)
Keep the Change accomplishes precisely that aim, though perhaps not in the way Hollywood’s producers have envisioned. The compassionate eye Rachel Israel lends to her camera may not be easily translated to commercial success, but with this debut indie flick she nonetheless challenges us to pause for a moment and consider: Whose stories are still yet to be told? And, more importantly, who’s going to pay so they can be?
Film credits: Produced by Summer Shelton, Todd Remis, and Kurt Enger; directed by Rachel Israel; screenplay by Rachel Israel; cinematography by Zachary Halberd; edited by Alex Camilleri; production design by Alina Smirnova; starring Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Jessica Walter, Will Deaver, Tibor Feldman. Color, 94 min. A Kino Lorber release.
For more info and showtimes in the US and Canada, click here.