Bright Lights Film Journal

Dispatch from Tribeca: Keep the Change (Rachel Israel, 2017, world premiere)

Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky in Keep the Change. From the film's Facebook page

Keep the Change does something unusual, casting actors on the autism spectrum to play autistic roles. The strategy is already a success in its first outing – the film just won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Tribeca festival – and offers a template for further such progressive casting approaches. Our Tribeca correspondent, Claire Baiz, finds much to love in a film that’s affecting without being overly sentimental.

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David Cohen (Brandon Polansky) is sprawled across the back seat of a limo, dressed like a walk-on for Miami Vice. He rumples his cream linen sport coat and adjusts his designer sunglasses. When the shiny black car turns a corner, David casually disses a homeless guy for digging in a wire trash bin.

The limo driver is bound for the JCC – the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Poor David looks like he’s been dropped through a trap door. He scans the group, which consists of about ten adults on the autism spectrum. The camera turns to Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), a chatty young woman who is gathering thoughts and casting them at the same time, like so many posies. She’s … um … loud.

David blanches. Does he belong here?

Movies about tough issues are too often delivered with a heavy hand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m often grateful to have seen films that take themselves very seriously – once. Just don’t look for them in my Netflix queue.

Keep the Change, Rachel Israel’s first feature-length film and at least partially crowdfunded through Seed and Spark, premiered this week as part of New York City’s 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. This movie is not thick. It’s not depressing. It’s not one of those movies you “should see.” It’s sweet and honest, funny and poignant.

The group meets. From the film’s Facebook page

Keep the Change is a love story between two adults on the autism spectrum. With a sex scene.

Brandon Polansky does a terrific job of playing a guy who is doing his best to “pass.” In person, or on an Internet dating website, it takes a moment … or two … or ten … for people to realize that his character doesn’t see the world in the usual way.

David, in a scene with universally adolescent body language, is reluctantly partnered with chatty Sarah for a field trip to the Brooklyn Bridge. With her vocabulary of clichés and superlatives, a disarming self-acceptance, and a healthy appetite – for just about everything – Samantha Elisofon plays Sarah with heart and fervor.

At first, Sarah doesn’t accept that David is giving her the brush-off. Perhaps she sees past his rudeness, recognizing it as a primal self-defense. When David realizes this young woman has the hots for him, he warms to the task.

David’s parents, played by an impeccable Jessica Walter and a polo-shirted Tibor Feldman, are far more comfortable with their son’s imaginary Internet liaisons than they are with the nice autistic Jewish girl at their dinner table. The Cohen family inhabits an upscale world, where David is lovingly accepted for who he is – as long as his emotional baggage fits into the overhead bin.

The story is intensely personal and wholly universal. Rachel Israel’s characters are endearing. The pacing is tight, and the cinematography is seamless and expressive.

This full-length feature project began in 2013, when Israel, then a student at Columbia University, produced an acclaimed short film of the same name, with the same actors. Both films are based on the joys and challenges of Mr. Polansky’s real-life romances.

Long before the credits rolled, I realized I was squirming at my own prejudice, wondering which actors were autistic and who was a pro.

The answer is: all of them. Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, everyone who plays an autistic person in Keep the Change is on the spectrum. In the movie and on the set, according to Israel, the autistic actors were consummate professionals.

I left the theater wondering how Dustin Hoffman, who won an Oscar in 1989 for Rain Man, would react if, in a few years, his portrayal of an autistic savant is regarded with a bit of the same disdain as Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer.

I’ve got someone in mind for the remake.

Polansky and Elisofon. From the film’s Facebook page

Don’t be surprised to see Brandon Polansky or his co-star Samantha Elisofon in other features: there’s a lot of pressure for filmmakers not to simply portray diversity, but to employ people who possess the traits that they’re paid to portray.

Polansky and Elisofon have had to live with autism for decades. They might to have to learn to live with being movie stars.

This film is full of entendre and hope, and it’s very entertaining. It’s worth the price of admission – keep the change.