With a surprisingly compassionate eye, Keep the Change susses out the comic and tragic elements borne from the daily struggle of living with autism. By largely populating her cast with non-professional actors who are on different levels of the spectrum, director Rachel Israel is able to take a more organic approach to her low-key portrait of a segment of society that’s largely underrepresented or misrepresented on film and television. Throughout, her film evinces an effortless naturalism that never invites our pity.
Keep the Change homes in on the endearing yet tumultuous relationship between David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who meet at an autism support group at a Jewish community center. David, who’s there only to avoid an unspecified legal infraction, refuses to acknowledge the extremity of his condition and carries himself with an arrogance and self-assuredness that leads to a number of frustrating and amusing confrontations. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself stuck between two worlds: between the world of the support group, where he initially feels superior to everyone, and the world at large, where he finds himself rejected at almost every turn. That is, until the persistent and confident Sarah enters his life.
Though Sarah suffers from a learning disability in addition to her autism, she’s completely at ease in her own skin, which forces David to examine his crippling self-consciousness when his own flare-ups inevitably embarrass him in public. And Israel rounds out her depiction of David and Sarah’s individual battles with autism by focusing on their richly varied interactions with their friends—and, for David, a few enemies—at the community center. Key to Keep the Change’s compassion is how the filmmaker recognizes that these individuals aren’t strangers to jealously, shame, fear, and sexual desire.
Israel deftly mines humor from potentially despairing conflicts by repeatedly highlighting Sarah’s unflappable positivity and David’s endearing need to always appear suave and in control, even if it means hiding behind a pair of sunglasses regardless of the time of day. And while Keep the Change may increasingly lean on feel-good rom-com tropes, one never loses sight of the spikiness of its humor—even in scenes that depict David’s wealthy, overbearing mother, Carrie (Jessica Walter), and Sarah’s oblivious, alcoholic grandmother struggling to cope with their loved ones’ mental health issues.
The film, so devoted to the intricacies of the autistic experience, makes its comedy and pathos inextricable. And it’s nothing short of canny how Israel refuses to simply prop up Sarah as a perfect balm for David’s social woes, eventually revealing this seemingly sweet, naïve woman as quite the sexually active flirt. But it’s difficult to imagine Keep the Change being abundant in such minor revelations if not for the filmmaker’s decision to have her autistic actors base their characters on their own experiences. A truly collaborative project, this remarkably earnest and keenly observant film offers a strong emotional resonance without resorting to maudlin melodrama.