Being different isn’t a hindrance to also being just like everyone else in “Keep the Change” — a lesson that David (Brandon Polansky), a grown man with autism, finds difficult to accept throughout the course of this empathetic romantic comedy. Charting David’s budding romance with Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), writer-director Rachel Israel’s film embraces its characters’ uniqueness while using a standard-issue genre template to underscore that, beyond their issues, they’re a familiar pair. Winner of the best narrative feature and best new narrative director prizes at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it’s an ode to self-discovery and acceptance that’s as funny as it is sweet.
As court-mandated punishment for making one of his trademark inappropriate jokes to a police officer, 30-year-old David is ordered to attend Connections, an NYC organization for autistic men and women. Wearing a blazer and dark sunglasses, David feels out of place in this community of strangers, whose habit of blurting out exclamations and dancing in stilted ways strikes him as proof that, unlike him, they’re “weirdos.” That David has a tendency to expel strange sneeze-wail-groans whenever he’s nervous is, of course, an early indication that he’s tricking himself into believing he’s somehow superior — and that’s not even factoring in his general social awkwardness, which manifests itself on a date with a woman who’s immediately repulsed by his tactless cracks about Kobe Bryant and rape.
Things take an unexpected turn for David when he’s forced to work on a Brooklyn Bridge project with fellow Connections member Sarah, who claims that she has autism and a “learning disability,” and who’s prone to expressing herself via streams of colloquialisms. David’s aggravation turns to amorousness, however, after he and Sarah spend time together, and she confesses that she finds him “really smoking hot and so sexy.” Love soon blossoms via clumsy bear-hug kisses and bedroom sex. However, their budding relationship isn’t without its ups and downs, whether thanks to their individual quirks — at Coney Island, Sarah refuses to walk on sand; at an Italian restaurant, David orders with abandon — or courtesy of the disapproving reaction to this coupling of David’s wealthy father (Tibor Feldman) and mother (Jessica Walter), the latter of whom thinks Sarah too “brain damaged” to be a good fit for her son.
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“Keep the Change” details David and Sarah’s affair with a kindness that doesn’t prevent it from generating comedy from their conditions, which often lead them to say inapt or peculiar things at random moments (such as David talking about his “hobophobia”). The film doesn’t mock their idiosyncrasies; it celebrates them in all their (often funny) forms. That extends to the raft of acquaintances David meets while at Connections, who in most cases are (like David and Sarah) played by autistic amateur actors who are all the more charming for being so unaffected.
That naturalness can also be felt in Israel’s on-location Manhattan camerawork (courtesy of cinematographer Zachary Halberd), in Amie Doherty’s cheery score, and in the leads’ winning turns. Uninhibited and yet often innocent and unaware, Elisofon is an endearingly off-kilter presence, while Polansky captures a moving sense of David’s desire to be “normal” (something at least partially acquired from his parents) and his simultaneous yearning to be understood and accepted, warts and all. In a nasty supporting role, Walter is typically great as a mother who frets for her son’s future but whose condescending meanness toward him (born from anger over his oddness) threatens to undermine his chances of achieving happiness.
The narrative conventionality in “Keep the Change” is itself a subtle political statement about autism. Yet Israel’s crowd-pleaser is anything but a polemic; rather, like the bond shared by David and Sarah, it’s at once totally normal and perfectly weird.