As the spirit of activism attempts to upend longstanding Hollywood paradigms, efforts at more inclusive filmmaking practices is a trending topic. Indeed, Frances McDormand recently sent the world into a googling frenzy when she ended her Oscar acceptance speech with the word “inclusion rider”. But what do we mean when we say “inclusion”? Too often our discussions around diversity are quite literally “black and white”. But the fabric of our modern society is a technicolor quilt of varied experiences, all of which deserved to be treated with the level of sincere empathy that writer-director Rachel Israel brings to “Keep the Change“. In this award-winning debut feature, Israel delivers a precious take on the classic romantic comedy, casting a pair of autistic characters as its lovestruck leads.
“Keep the Change” first introduces us to David (Brandon Polansky), a 30-year old man with a bit of a bad boy reputation. Coming from an affluent Long Island background and having a high-functioning autism that isn’t immediately detectable, he carries himself with a confident swagger. He sees himself as the next great filmmaker and frequents online dating sites hoping to score with women. His pompous attitude – exacerbated by the unfiltered honesty caused by his autism – often gets him in trouble however. And after one such run-in with the law, he is forced to attend a summer course for autistic adults called Connections in Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center. Surrounded by autistic individuals on various levels of the autism spectrum for the first time, he feels like he doesn’t belong. But in this strange environment, he may have found his heart’s match, in the form of a cheerful young woman named Sarah (Samantha Elisofon).
Of course, it takes a while for these soulmates to realize they are meant for each other. David’s character in particular undergoes a significant transformation after initially rejecting Sarah’s advances. In typical romcom fashion, he is an immature man child who learns to be a better man simply through his experiences with Sarah.
But Sarah is no mere prop for David’s personal growth. She is a fully realized woman who nonchalantly admits to having a learning disability, yet is confident in being her effervescent, sexually liberated self. And as played by Samantha Elisofon, you would hardly guess that she is a non-professional actor. She expresses Sarah’s insecurities, joy and sadness with impressive nuance.
Both Elisofon and Brandon Polansky show natural acting talent as Israel explores these characters while playing with the reliable romcom tropes. And like “The Big Sick” before it, “Keep the Change” shines by carefully revealing the specificity of their experiences within relatable circumstances. While we’ve seen romcom plots use classism, disapproving mothers (a perfectly cast Jessica Walter) and social awkwardness to create conflict and laughter, it feels fresh when portrayed through the eyes of persons dealing with autism. The overbearing mother isn’t just a cartoonish snob, but a woman who is understandably concerned about her son’s future. Similarly, every amusing faux pas also brings with it an underlying pathos due to the unfortunate reality of their disorder.
Ultimately, “Keep the Change” is a heartwarming showcase of a relationship that is special in many ways. Through the intimacy of Rachel Israel’s approach, we get to metaphorically walk a mile in the shoes of an autistic couple whose inner personalities transcend their mental limitations. Indeed, their connection is no different from the other New York couples they may pass on the street. As the sweetly humbling final scene reminds us, the selfless essence of love is truly universal.
“Keep the Change” opens in select theaters March 16.