Keep the Change: actors with autism get the chance to shine in romcom | Film
When Rachel Israel set out to make a feature film based on a longtime friend, who has autism, and his first serious romance, casting the lead role was easy. The only person she could imagine playing her friend, Brandon Polansky, was himself.
Casting a woman to play his love interest, though, proved a much greater challenge. Israel auditioned roughly 100 professional actors, but nobody fit until Israel shifted tactics and cast a co-star who was also on the spectrum. Israel cast two more actors with autism in supporting roles and worked with all four of them until she had something truly unique – a story in which the characters with autism drive all the action.
The result is Keep the Change, a film that steps confidently into ongoing conversations about the merits of authentic casting and pop culture portrayals of people with autism. TV has recently given us a bumper crop with Atypical, a Netflix creation, and The A Word, on the BBC, following young people with autism, and ABC’s The Good Doctor telling the story of an adult savant.
But while most shows like these have relied on non-autistic actors and dwelled on how people who have autism interact with those who don’t, Keep the Change does something different. Instead, the film revolves around the story of David (Polansky), who meets Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) at a support group for adults on the spectrum and starts up a romance; meanwhile, caretakers, teachers, cab drivers, pedestrians and merry-go-round passengers bob in and out of the story without ever commanding its focus.
The script was born out of years of interviews and improvisation with Polansky and the other main actors. “Authentic casting was a huge controlling factor in how the film came out,” Israel said. “I’m not an expert on autism, so my way into the story was knowing this cast and keeping them involved from the beginning.”
She continued: “I didn’t trust myself to go off and write something without the involvement of the cast. I don’t think it would have been good or felt real.”
Israel departs from stories about autism that redound with questions about how their family members can forge a stronger connection.
“One thing you’ll see across a lot of representations is that even if, within the story, the highest stakes are with the character who has autism, it’s very often not framed as that person’s story,” Israel said. “It becomes about the brother of the parents or some other character who is the caretaker.”
Even in cases where the main character has autism, she added, those stories often take as their central conflict that person’s attempts to fit into the larger world. “To me, then, it frequently becomes a comparison,” she said. “This is what people with autism look like, and here’s how they differ from people who don’t.”
Keep the Change breaks with stories that have treated autism itself as a barrier to deep relationships. While David and Sarah differ in their abilities to gel with the broader world – him with his unfiltered jokes, her struggles with abstract language – it’s their choices about how to navigate the world and each other that ultimately threaten their new romance.
Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon in Keep the Change. Photograph: Kino Lorber
The film also premieres amid discussions about whether diverse storytelling necessitates more diverse casting. While characters with autism are not uncommon today, casting actors with autism to play them is. It wasn’t until four years after its first performance that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a play framed through the mind of a boy with autism, featured an actor with autism in the lead role. Atypical, which cast an actor who doesn’t have autism as its star, faced criticism for passing up a similar opportunity.
For Israel, anchoring the film with four actors with autism meant an opportunity to show how diverse the spectrum really is – movies tend to favor depictions in which autism coincides with extraordinary abilities. Polansky himself hoped the performances would a break from stereotypes of people with autism as affectless and having simplistic personal connections. “It’s supposed to change the way we look at people on the autism spectrum – these awful pictures of autism as if we’re a bunch of mutants,” he said.
Polansky imbued David with some of his own experiences. A vocal tic that usually makes him sheepish became a fixture in the film. “It would be, ‘Cut! Do it again a little bit louder, scare more kids,’” he laughed.
Polanksy’s involvement also meant that the film’s meditations on autism, its challenges and its stigma are largely refracted through the people who live with it. In one of his character’s low moments, for instance, Polanksy unleashes a torrent of abuse on a homeless person portrayed by Israel’s husband. “David transparently was looking in a mirror, calling himself names, spitting in the mirror,” Polansky said. The monologue borrowed insults that have been hurled at him in real life.
The story is based on his first serious romantic relationship, which happened to end shortly before filming began. “It was so painful to make something about a love story that no longer existed,” he recalled. But it was worth it, he said, “to paint this beautiful picture of how we really are.”
Keep the Change is now out in New York and will open in Los Angeles on 20 March with a UK date to be announced