Keep the Change
Making a film about and starring people with autism is a commendable yet difficult undertaking. Such a project carries an intrinsic desire among the open-minded to applaud the effort, but as with the 2017 documentary Dina, Rachel Israel’s narrative feature Keep the Change is not an easy sit and not all that rewarding.
Another recent comparison point is last year’s Menashe, about Brooklyn’s Hassidic Jewish community, which offers a similar rare glimpse at an underrepresented community but features solid filmmaking, storytelling and performances.
Other than Israel’s steady-handed visuals, there’s little of note in Keep the Change, which follows wealthy David (Brandon Polansky) as he obeys a judge’s order and reluctantly attends a social program at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center.
The reason behind the court mandate is never revealed, a sign of things to come in a work that lets the production’s progressiveness get in the way of character and narrative development. But despite these deficiencies in the moment and down the road, the film receives a boost with the infusion of Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), a fellow group member with a significantly more positive outlook on life than the new addition.
After glimpses of David’s grating interpersonal inadequacies and lousy luck with women, it’s uplifting to see him connect with Sarah on what seems like a genuinely romantic level. The trajectory of their relationship is generally enjoyable and yields such entertaining bursts as an amusing exchange with a humorless bouncer guarding the backstage door of a theater, though their time together is also plagued by half-formed and downright unbelievable details that undermine its authenticity.
Foremost of these problems are David’s mother (Jessica Walter) and father (Tibor Feldman), who bafflingly exist in constant denial of their son’s special needs. Convinced he’ll meet someone not on the spectrum who’ll love and take care of him, they’re unwilling to support his interest in Sarah and lose nearly all credibility through this disconnect from reality.
Trapped in the older generation’s limited worldview, the lovers themselves become less interesting, and while supporting players from within the JCC group somewhat pick up the slack, were a feature were to be made about them with Sarah and David in side roles, the same thing would likely be said of them.
Worrisome still is that, based on the characters’ unpredictability and history of flip-flopping, it’s uncertain if any of them have changed much by Keep the Change’s end. The potential static status puts the film’s very reason for existence under scrutiny — and there’s a strong sense it wouldn’t hold up well under closer examination.
Grade: C. Not rated but with adult themes and language. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: Kino Lorber)