Keep the Change makes a significant departure from traditional film portrayals of autism since it has the unique distinction of casting actors who are actually on the autism spectrum in the roles of autistic protagonists and supporting characters who are on the spectrum.
By Nils Skudra
I recently had the opportunity to watch a newly released autism-themed film entitled Keep the Change, written and directed by Rachel Israel. The film revolves around David Cohen (portrayed by Brandon Polansky), an aspiring amateur filmmaker on the autism spectrum who is from an affluent New York family. Arrogant and snobby, David has an obnoxious sense of humor which manifests in inappropriate jokes about sex, homeless people, racial and religious minorities, and police. These are demonstrative of the social challenges that accompany David’s diagnosis since he displays an inability to grasp how he comes across towards other people in his interactions with them. For example, when he gets together with a woman he met on an online dating site, David quickly makes her uncomfortable by moaning, groaning and snorting in his bare hand (an expression of his anxiety although he claims it is an allergic reaction) and making jokes about his two favorite things being “Jell-O pudding and rape!” This prompts the date to leave with the excuse of having to use the bathroom, but moments later David realizes that she has left with nary a word of apology.
David’s social difficulties land him in a court-mandated Drama Therapy group after making a pig joke to a cop, with the requirement that he attend sessions on a regular basis for six weeks in order to avoid being sent to jail. The group, themed around the idea of “Connections,” is comprised of other individuals with autism who engage in practicing conversational skills under the conscientious eye of a therapist so that they may operate more successfully in everyday social interactions. David initially spurns the idea of involvement in the course, telling his mother, “I’m not going back there.” He is also incognizant of his diagnosis, saying to one member: “I don’t have a problem, I’m just passing through.” This lack of self-awareness, together with David’s superciliousness, leads him to be judgmental of the other people in the group, referring to them as “abnormal” and displaying a complete lack of interest in participating in its activities.
However, things take a turn for David when he meets Sarah Silverstein (played by Samantha Elisofon), a fellow group member who has a learning disability in addition to being on the autism spectrum. She quickly takes an interest in David, and after they are told to write about practicing conversation around their shared interest in the Brooklyn Bridge, she persistently pushes David to go on a trip with her there. He grudgingly relents and throughout the day is exposed to more of her autistic tendencies and behaviors. Sarah constantly smiles during conversations, speaks in a high-pitched and screeching voice, expresses her thoughts directly without any concern or cognizance as to how they may be received (often in ways that make David uncomfortable – e.g. “I find you smoking hot and so sexy”), and exhibits a strict preference for following her own customary and undeviating routine. For example, she initially displays a profound discomfort with riding in a taxicab, and after their trip to the Brooklyn Bridge she repeatedly insists on taking the bus home from the Jewish Community Center since that is always the route that she utilizes, finally prompting an exasperated David to walk all the way to the JCC bus stop with her so that she can catch her ride. In the beginning of the film she manifests a great deal of inflexibility and a lack of empathy as to how she goes about living her life but as the movie proceeds we witness some development in how that inflexibility will later be modulated.
As David continues to attend the group sessions, a romantic relationship gradually develops between him and Sarah. In its early stages, David still retains his condescending attitude toward the other group members on account of their autism, as he asks Sarah “You do realize the people there are weird, don’t you?” and expresses his belief that she is above them. He also criticizes her behaviors and says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” to which she replies, “Well I have autism.” At this point, David still fails to recognize and is in denial of the autistic nature of his own characterological tendencies since he remarks, upon being asked by Sarah what his problem is, “I guess I got a little stressed out this year but I’m getting better.” However, as their relationship progresses, David increasingly comes to terms with the fact that his behaviors are indeed consistent with and revelatory of being on the autism spectrum, and this recognition motivates him to develop a growing appreciation for Sarah’s and the fellow group members’ neuro-diverse traits.
An example of David’s profoundly changing outlook is reflected during a scene in which he and Sarah take a trip to Coney Island. When he implores her to walk on the beach with him, she consistently refuses on the grounds that she hates the feel of the sand on her feet. She suggests that they take one of the intimidating, fast-moving rides at the fairground, a prospect which deeply unnerves David. He therefore suggests a variety of different options, all of which Sarah declines since she has outgrown them, and they finally settle reluctantly on the merry-go-round. Once on the carousel, however, David freaks out and begins having a meltdown characterized by the familiar groans, moans and snorts that he periodically makes in moments of anxiety, and he yells out desperately, “Stop the ride!” After the ride, he tells Sarah, “I’m okay. I’ve really been getting better,” and she hugs him empathetically. Although he still insists that he is improving, it is at this moment that he begins to realize the symptomatic nature of his autistic behaviors. In some ways this is the epiphany of the movie where the central character moves from denial to self-reflexive behavior, a point in which there is no longer the option of returning to the acceptance of former self. This is the precise moment of evolution for David and we will see in the ensuing dramatic moments as the film proceeds the sculpting of a new awareness which is responsive to the facts that David is indeed not neuro-typical.
Another example of David’s growing self-awareness takes place when he visits Sarah at her apartment. After showing her his home movies that he allegedly plans to submit for the Palm Beach International Film Festival, David finally parenthetically refers to the “tics and noises that I make” and asks Sarah, “You don’t think I’m a bum?” This scene further illustrates David’s increasing acceptance of his autism and his concern about how other people perceive his persona. Whereas he has previously failed to recognize how his obnoxious humor gives people a poor impression of him, his relationship with Sarah has led him to develop a new sense of empathy for the way in which he comes across in his social interactions and for others who are similarly challenged. At the same time, however, he still operates in a different world not entirely based in reality since he believes that he will catch his “big break in Hollywood.” At this point he has not really considered how he might make a substantial effort to contribute to society in any way and continues to accept money from his parents, largely lounging around without trying to find employment. In contrast, Sarah displays a greater self-awareness and agency than David since she consistently endeavors to become involved in musical theater (in spite of having a terrible singing voice), create a life which is meaningful for her and full of social interactions, and generally operates on a more independent level. She takes an inter-city bus herself while David is still reliant on the chauffeur who ferries him around.
Keep the Change makes a significant departure from traditional film portrayals of autism since it has the unique distinction of casting actors who are actually on the autism spectrum in the roles of autistic protagonists and supporting characters who are on the spectrum. While big-name films and miniseries such as Please Stand By and The Good Doctor feature prominent neuro-typical celebrities like Dakota Fanning and Freddie Highmore as autistic protagonists, Rachel Israel, as the director of this independent picture, took a big chance and made a conscious choice to cast real-life autistic individuals in the lead roles. During a Q&A session (shown in the special features on the DVD), she explains that she has known Brandon Polansky for 16 years and that he provided the inspiration for the film. She pointedly states, “The purpose of this film is to change the way everyone looks at the autism spectrum” and that people with autism “have the same hopes and dreams as normal people.” Although mainstream films about autism may share this avowed purpose, and while I feel that many of the neuro-typical lead actors in these productions have delivered superb performances as autistic protagonists, many critics have argued that they fail to truly represent autism since actors who are actually on the spectrum have not had the opportunity to play these roles. The leap made by Keep the Change in this regard may prove to be a stepping stone for future film portrayals of autism since its successful depiction of autistic protagonists by actors on the autism spectrum could have the effect of convincing mainstream filmmakers of the potential of autistic actors to represent themselves without having their behaviors constitute any deterrent to the development of the production.
In summation, Keep the Change is a sensitively crafted portrayal of how individuals on the autism spectrum can achieve self-awareness of their distinctive characterological tendencies and thereby overcome bigotry against other people who share their diagnosis. The performances by Polansky and Elisofon are spot on, conveying in a very touching and sensitive manner the ways in which a romantic relationship between two autistic individuals can develop and the role that their shared neurological condition plays in shaping that relationship. Furthermore, the film’s casting of actors on the spectrum in the roles of autistic protagonists provides an innovative change in the ways that autism-themed movies are traditionally done. It can be hoped that the inspiration that other directors may take from this step may lead to increasing opportunities for actors on the spectrum to play autistic roles and thus ensure a more representative future for the autism community in the film industry.
Keep the Change is available on Netflix.
“I am an artist on the autism spectrum, specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history as a second-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children.I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.
I have also been pursuing a side career as a freelance journalist, and I have had at least 8 articles published in local magazines and newspapers from various cities and towns in North Carolina and in Pittverse Magazine (based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), which is staffed entirely by people on the autism spectrum. I am very keen on contributing articles as a regular blogger for the Art of Autism. Among my ideas for article topics are my experiences with disclosing my diagnosis in the workplace; and local businesses which are staffed by people on the spectrum and which donate their proceeds to autism causes. Through these blogs I hope to highlight the issues of autism’s portrayal in film, the challenges of discrimination that autistic individuals encounter in the workplace, and to promote support for local organizations that are dedicated to autism causes.”