A ’Change’ for the better

The rom-com ‘Keep the Change’ beautifully portrays the reality of autism

A scene from the rom-com ‘Keep the Change’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A scene from the rom-com ‘Keep the Change’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hebrew title: Ha’odef Bishvilech
Directed by Rachel Israel
With Brandon Polansky,
Samantha Elisofon, Jessica Walter
Running time: 94 minutes
Rachel Israel’s beautiful, moving feature film Keep the Change, which won the Best US Narrative Feature Award and several other awards at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, is a rom-com with a twist: Both its main characters are on the autism spectrum. Because of that twist, it’s far more dramatic than a conventional romantic comedy, as well as more moving and more original.
There have been a spate of movies and television shows recently about people with autism, among them the TV series Atypical and The Good Doctor, where autism is generally portrayed either as a character-defining quirk or a mark of genius. The genuine difficulties people on the spectrum face, and what truly makes them unique, are rarely touched on in these dramas. As the mother of a young adult son with autism, I am acutely sensitive to this and have generally been frustrated with such films and shows, which tend to trivialize the reality of autism.
But in Keep the Change, David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) couldn’t seem more real or give more compelling or appealing performances. Their work illuminates both the ways in which autism truly makes them different and the ways it doesn’t. But more important, they make us care about these people. There has been a public debate recently over whether it’s all right for people with special needs to be played by actors who don’t have special needs, and for the record, both Polansky and Elisofon are on the spectrum. However, they give terrific performances because they are terrific actors, not because they have autism.
David is a lonely, rich guy who lives with his parents in a beautiful suburban home, trying and failing at online dating. Because of a run- in he had with the cops, he has been sentenced to attend a program for people with autism at the JCC in Manhattan, perhaps the first rom-com where lovers meet in a JCC. David is a know-it-all who really does know most of it, but being so smart doesn’t help him very much, since he’s dependent on his parents for almost everything. He’s funny and sarcastic, but he has
loud, intrusive vocal tics. He just wants to finish this program and get back to hanging around the house. But there he meets Sarah, a lovely young woman whose autism expresses itself through perseveration, oversharing and beautiful malapropisms, the latter of which is an aspect of autism that is very real but that I have never seen portrayed on screen before. She’s also a gifted and very enthusiastic singer of show tunes.
While they are immediately attracted to each other, things don’t go smoothly, of course. Some of these obstacles are unique to a movie about autism — David’s mother doesn’t approve of Sarah, and he is so helpless in many ways that he can’t just move into his own apartment — and others, like the fact that Sarah already has a boyfriend, that are universal. At times, their story transcends the rom-com genre and becomes far more dramatic. We can see David’s self-loathing over the ways that he can’t function. The movie’s title is a phrase he often uses, since he is a chronic over-tipper  because he can’t do the most basic math. When he berates a beggar on the street, it is really himself he’s yelling at.
The one flaw in the movie is that David’s mother, entertainingly played by Jessica Walter (best known as the sexy psycho killer in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me), is a one-dimensional bitch. It would have been interesting to see a mother struggling to help her complex son, but this character is just overbearing.
Keep the Change is brilliantly written, acted and directed, a triumph in so many ways. It is so suspenseful and entertaining that I sincerely believe I would have loved it even if I had no personal connection to autism. It’s very rare that I cry in movies, but this one brought tears to my eyes, both of sadness and joy, several times. I hope others will give it a chance and be as moved
as I was.