Recently I had the privilege of viewing Keep the Change, written and directed by Rachel Israel, at the Colonial Theatre in Bethlehem New Hampshire. The two talented actors who make their debut in this film are Samantha Elisofon as Sarah and Brandon Polansky as David. Samantha and her mother Marguerite attended the showing. Marguerite spoke beforehand and it became clear that as a visionary advocate for her daughter she has long enabled Samantha to wear the wings she needs to soar in her own life.
Both actors give stunning performances. Both are autistic and both play autistic main characters. David is the center of the story. He believes the key to his success is his ability to conform. His efforts often lead to confusing failures and feelings of despair that sum up the dark side of autistic reality. In contrast, Sarah is the heart of authentic possibility. She has some atypical speech patterns and other affects that can be quirky to the typical eye and ear, yet her character is luminous in all of her light and dark moments. She shines and broods with an arresting power all her own. Sarah snuffs out any long mistaken notion that an autistic person has little emotional expanse or ability to become emotionally attached.
That is only one part of what makes this a groundbreaking film. On the one hand it is a typical love story. It proves that a movie in which the main characters are autistic, can still be a movie that is about most of us. Most of us long for love and support and have complicated family lives. Many of us are lonely too much of the time. Sarah and David have trouble communicating. He is resistant to her overtures, but becomes won over. He comes to realize she wants to love and know him for who he is, quirks and all. There is an awesome sex scene.
But perhaps the greatest gift of this film is experiencing that fine, heartbreaking line of what it means to straddle the two frictional worlds of desiring conventional acceptance and embracing differences. The director doesn’t allow us to remain objective observers on this journey.
We enter two different worlds. The film opens with a group session for people with disabilities who are learning to improve social navigation. This is where we first meet Sarah. She clearly has friends in this sheltered group, is highly valued, and gently assisted. In stark opposition, we experience David’s home life- a world dependent on convention and conformity.
While David appears more savvy at navigating the neuro-typical world, his social skills are more limited than they seem. Even so, Sarah doesn’t have the ability to assess social situations as well as he does. The director makes sure the audience sees this as not only her weakness, but a strength. We fall in love with Sarah long before David does. Then in one penultimate scene, we experience the pain and fall out of what happens when their joined worlds meet up with the pressures of conformity.
The final scene is on a bus. A city bus. It is about counting change. It is about what can arise from small authentic moments of human exchange. It is what a loving world can look like when conformity and difference collide and we learn to have to guts to help them co-exist. It is what two autistic people can teach us about how truth can break hearts open and change lives.
Keep the Change is a must see. The movie is making its rounds to various theaters around the country and overseas. If it isn’t coming to your town anytime soon it can be purchased as a DVD or seen on Amazon Prime or iTunes.
Amy Brenner Mitz is an ordained cantor who has served congregations in Chicago, St. Louis, New York and New Hampshire. She has an older brother with autism. Presently she lives in northern New Hampshire with her husband and 23 year old twin sons, one with Fragile X Syndrome, the other with Koolen DeVries.