An image-conscious budding filmmaker and an uninhibited aspiring songstress struggle to form a satisfying relationship in “Keep the Change,” a dramedy opening Friday at the Roxie featuring protagonists and actors with autism.
While providing a rare close-up picture of people living with the developmental disorder, the film seldom suggests a disability movie. It impresses primarily as a charming, poignant love story.
Interested in making big-screen fare about underrepresented people, writer-director Rachel Israel absorbs us in the lives of two adults with autism, depicting them realistically and straightforwardly, instead of in sanitized or movie-star-vehicle mode (a la “Rain Man,” a title she’s cited) in this film expanded from a 2013 short.
David (Brandon Polansky), a 30-something New Yorker on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, lives with his well-off, conformist parents (Jessica Walter, Tibor Feldman) and makes films with his computer. Online, David surfs dating sites, but with his nervous tics and offensive jokes, he alienates the women he meets.
Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), a member of the support group for people with autism that David is court-ordered to attend after telling a pig joke to a cop, is different.
Initially, David wants no part of an instructor’s assignment to visit the Brooklyn Bridge with Sarah, an oversharing young woman who uses phrases like “easy peasy” and breaks into song in public. But when Sarah tells David he’s “smoking hot,” he warms to her. They begin dating and consider marriage.
Obstacles arise as the two address each other’s flaws and attempt to interact with the greater world during visits to Coney Island and elsewhere.
At a family gathering attended by David’s well-known actor cousin (Jonathan Tchaikovsky), David’s desire for social acceptance leads to a crushing betrayal.
Israel can be shaky at the wheel in this feature debut as she navigates the everyday bumps and occasional blows her characters’ experience.
Her concerted focus on the characters with autism, while admirable, sometimes shortchanges the “normal” people who play significant roles in her protagonists’ lives. David’s mother comes off as a one-dimensional snob.
But Israel — who cast actors with autism to play characters with autism, fully acquainted herself with them, and wrote a fictional story based on their personalities and lives — created an enlightening depiction of the autism world and a complex and sparkling movie romance.
She nicely avoids rom-com contrivances — even the fish-out-of-water dynamics have a natural quality — and the actors give credible performances.
Crucial in movies like this, the persuasive Polansky and delightful Elisofon have viewers rooting for their characters’ romantic success.
Also convincing and entertaining are Nicky Gottlieb as promising playwright Sammy and several lesser-seen but equally effective costars.
Keep the Change
Starring Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Nicky Gottlieb, Jessica Walter
Written and directed by Rachel Israel
Running time 1 hour, 33 minutes