'Keep the Change': Film Review

A modest but refreshing love story that takes its autistic protagonists on their own terms.

Writer-director Rachel Israel builds her debut film around non-professional actors with autism.

A Manhattan love story set entirely in a small community of autistic New Yorkers, Rachel Israel's Keep the Change stars Brandon Polansky, whom the director first met when he asked her (and quite a few of her fellow art students) out for a date over 15 years ago. They never dated, but the resulting friendship is evident here, in a fictionalized portrait that roots hard for Polansky's David Cohen despite clearly seeing what others find off-putting about him. Viewers with autism and those who care for them constitute the film's most obvious audience, but the picture holds appeal for the rest of us as well — moviegoers who don't see many characters with autism onscreen, and even more rarely see them presented as unmanipulatively as they are here.

David is the thirtysomething only child of rich parents, a man who never had to learn to use public transit because he could afford to take cabs everywhere. Wealth aside, he is near the fully functional end of the autism spectrum: Apart from a few tics that emerge at moments of stress, his main symptom is a habit of telling very inappropriate jokes. After telling a joke about pigs to a cop, David is ordered by the court to enroll in a support group called Connections that meets at a local Jewish center.

David endures meetings there like a sophomore in detention, barely hiding the superiority he feels toward the group's more challenged members. Meanwhile, he's combing through every profile on a dating website, going on dates that crumble when he tries to charm women with jokes about rape, race or terrorism. He doesn't seem to even register Connections member Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) as a romantic possibility, and he's annoyed when the group's facilitator (Dorsey Massey) assigns him to go on a field trip to the Brooklyn Bridge with her. But then they're out in public, and, in the middle of him saying something obnoxious to her, Sarah offhandedly reports, "I find you really, really smoking hot and so sexy." David's perspective changes.

The film picks up here, as David's desire for a girlfriend outweighs his need to distance himself from others with autism. He starts to participate in extracurricular activities, risks embarrassment and engages with others in the group. The effect this attraction has on his behavior is not magical, but organic. And as he starts to seek Sarah's attention, he learns something surprising. Despite her guilelessness and apparent innocence, Sarah is a more autonomous person than David gives her credit for. She's even, in some ways, more competent than he is: Out for the day at Coney Island, she's unwilling to go on the kiddie rides he suggests. Now he's the backward one, sitting on a merry-go-round bench while the tots around him ride horses up and down.

This is the point at which rom-coms typically construct artificial obstacles to love. Israel goes in a more honest direction, allowing inevitable difficulties to register in increasingly poignant ways. The climax is a betrayal in which, placed in a group of successful, cognitively normal partygoers, David has to choose between loyalty and the social standing that is so important to him — thanks in no small part to the snobbery of his mother (Arrested Development's Jessica Walter). Keep the Change acknowledges that people with disabilities can sometimes be largely responsible for the biggest problems they face, just like the rest of us — and it doesn't need to be Pollyannaish to believe those problems are solvable.

Production company: Tangerine Entertainment
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Cast: Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Nicky Gottlieb, Will Deaver, Jessica Walter, Tibor Feldman, Jonathan Tchaikovsky, Dorsey Massey
Director-screenwriter: Rachel Israel
Producers: Summer Shelton, Todd Remis, Kurt Enger
Executive producers: Anne Hubbell, Amy Hobby, Laura Staich, Philip Ruedi
Director of photography: Zachary Halberd
Production designer: Alina Smirnova
Costume designer: Havi Elkaim
Editor: Alex Camilleri
Composer: Amie Doherty
Casting director: Adrienne Stern

94 minutes