Keep the Change is a heartwarming love story between two autistic adults played by no other than autistic actors. The film is cozy and funny without shying away from the reality of being autistic in a neurotypical world. It’s the movie the community has long been waiting for.
Set in New York City, a romance between David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisosfan) blossoms with a visit to the Brooklyn Bridge. The two meet at a support group for individuals on the spectrum at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan. David is ordered by a judge to attend after making a pig joke to a cop. He’s resistant to the group at first, holding on to his perception of “normalcy”, but slowly he falls in the folds of the community with the help of his new love interest.
Smiley, affectionate, and gregarious, Sarah breathes light into how Autism can express in women. She helps break down David’s defenses built up from a lifetime of trying to pass as non-autistic. Throughout the movie, you witness his struggle to camouflage his ticks and recover from jokes that are perceived as inappropriate by neurotypical women.
The two stumble through a quick romance. They hit bumps that are relatable beyond disability, but also showcase how judgmental attitudes towards differences can hinder relationships.
In the few films depicting autistic characters, their role usually illustrates the burden they place on the people around them. But Keep The Change veers from that trend and highlights how judgmental attitudes strain and harm autistic people – and it’s a radical move for neurodivergent representation in film.
The director Rachel Israel involved the community at the JCC in the script and takes us on a journey through the characters’ growth and transformation. I got to talk to her about the film which is showing at the Quad Theatre in New York and Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. Check out our conversation below.
Reese: What was the impetus behind creating the film?
Rachel: The idea behind the film comes from my relationship with Brandon Polansky – the lead actor. I’ve known him now for 17 years and for as long as I’ve known him he has always wanted a girlfriend. He met his first serious girlfriend at the JCC about 8 years ago now. I got pulled into the drama of that relationship and was really moved by it.
In casting his love interest, we chose Samantha Elisosfan, who wasn’t his real girlfriend, but was from the JCC and then it became about these two people would fall in love. Then I casted the same community of people first and then we built the story around it.
It’s really important that it’s not a documentary but fiction, and the cast are actors playing fictional characters. Although we did in creating those characters draw from things that would be emotionally resonant to them.
Reese: Do you think it’s important that most of the cast was autistic?
Rachel: If we’re making a story about autistic characters then I think it’s important the cast be autistic. I’ve known Brandon for many years, but I didn’t really know anyone else on the spectrum. And even though I knew Brandon, I didn’t know much about autism and what I know now is how diverse it is. It’s very hard to pigeon someone on the spectrum.
I wanted to replicate my experience of discovery because it’s not something we experience very often in fiction films. And I thought it could be powerful.
Reese: What I enjoyed about your film is that it flips the trope we usually see in representations of autism. The very few characters out there show how autistic people are a burden to other people, but Keep The Change shows how other people burden autistic people. And I really appreciated that.
Rachel: Most of the representation in the film ends up being more about a parent’s or sibling’s relationship to that character than about the actual character. Those representations make you feel that the person on the spectrum is a weak character because it’s all about the others.
Reese: Do you feel your film will help representation of autistic women?
Rachel: I hope so! I initially fell in love with Samantha. I love her strength. When you meet her she’s extremely vivacious and luminous, and the more I worked with her the more I knew there was a steal strength in there. There are very few depictions of people on the spectrum and very few women because it’s not as common or commonly diagnosed.
Reese: I loved Sarah’s character, but I related to David. He’s seemingly “high functioning”, but then you see how he struggles to fit in. What do you hope the film communicates about what it means for an autistic person to try to fit into society?
Rachel: The character David has a lot of shields up for protecting himself. When he makes a tick he excuses it with “oh that was a sneeze” and he’s always over-tipping throughout the film because of his inability to do math. He has a lot of shields up to protect his vulnerabilities. He can only manage to hold that together when he’s taking care of himself. What I wanted for his relationship with Sarah was to show how loving someone and taking care of someone else would challenge his ability to hold up all these shields.
I also hope the film is emotionally relatable for everyone, even though I don’t know what to live in my casts’ lives, I can empathize with their experiences. So, I hope that people can connect in the same way when watching the film.
Reese: That’s what I found beautiful about the film. In the beginning, it seems David is more functioning than Sarah, but by the end of it, you realize that label is obsolete.
Rachel: That’s how I feel! I don’t think the terms low functioning or high functioning are very useful.
Reese: Why did you center it around a love story?
Rachel: That was inspired by the relationship that positively impacted Brandon. Then on deeper reflection, I thought it was important to see a character on the spectrum pursuing love because it’s not something we see in the film. There’s a lot of misconception that people on the spectrum don’t pursue love. Before I knew Brandon, I was burdened by that misconception.
It was probably a year into my friendship with Brandon when he told me he was on the spectrum and I would never have guessed – not that I knew much about Autism. But everything I knew was probably coming from movies and I would have thought people on the spectrum shy away from romance or connection.
And I also just love stories.
About the writer, Reese Piper