With her debut feature, writer/director Rachel Israel has delivered something truly special. Keep the Change is a sensitive, heartfelt love story that also happens to be one of the most honest and open depictions of people overcoming disabilities ever to have graced the screen. Films of varying quality have addressed such issues, running the gamut from Barry Levinson’s moderately passable Rain Man to Gary Marshall’s genuinely terrible The Other Sister, but they’ve all been defined by a sense of condescending Otherness when it comes to characterization. There’s none of that in Israel’s film, which presents its characters as fully realized, multidimensional human beings worthy of empathy but never pity.
Israel’s nuanced script follows David Cohen (Brandon Polansky), an adult with autism whose wealthy family has sheltered him from the stark realities of his condition. Shuttled around Manhattan in a chauffeur-driven town car, David seems largely oblivious to the fact that he’s different. But his condition has caused problems, as an ill-considered joke to a police officer has landed him in a court-mandated support group with other learning-disabled adults. David refuses to engage with the group, viewing them with a sense of disdain until the attractive and gregarious Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) expresses a romantic interest in him, causing him to reconsider. It’s a pretty standard rom-com setup, but what Israel does with it allows Keep the Change to transcend its genre trappings.
For starters, both Polansky and Elisofon are actually adults with autism, and their strong performances belie their lack of experience as actors. Israel’s script gives them room to breathe, finding the comedy in their quirks without digressing into ridicule. We’re encouraged to laugh with Sarah and David but never at them, and their behavioral ticks take on an endearing sense of normalcy. That is, at least, until they’re thrown into contrast with David’s wealthy parents, played by Tibor Feldman and the always fantastic Jessica Walter. Walter’s late-career renaissance playing rich biddies from Lucille Bluth to Mallory Archer leaves her perfectly suited to her role as David’s mother, a closeted bigot who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge her son’s atypicality, a delusion that has encouraged him to do the same and consequently thwarted his capacity for growth.
In the interest of acknowledging my biases, Keep the Change was shot less than a block from the apartment I lived in for eight years — one where I helped raise an autistic child with an ex-girlfriend — and Israel received her MFA from my alma mater. But even if I had no pre-existing attachment to the subject or setting, I would still be incapable of denying this film’s warmth and charm. It’s not a flawless picture — the story is occasionally formulaic, and the direction is somewhat lacking in style — but it did win the best narrative feature and best new narrative director awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, so I’m not the only one who thinks it’s good. Well-deserved accolades aside, Israel has crafted a film that makes inclusivity a foregone conclusion rather than a spectacle, and that alone warrants my unequivocal recommendation. If this film is any indication, her career will be one to watch. Not Rated.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.