The desire for human connection is real.
It doesn't go away if you have a disability. It doesn't matter if you're visually impaired or hearing impaired. It doesn't matter if you use a wheelchair, require full-time caregiving or live in a group home.
It's there. It's real. It can be frustrating and exhilarating and empowering and, at times, that desire for human connection can feel even more disabling.
I get the feeling that Rachel Israel, writer/director of the award-winning short film Keep the Change gets it. The film is a refreshingly honest about living as an adult on the autism spectrum. Unlike so many films that either employ non-disabled actors or, just as worse, fall victim to the trend toward unrealistic inspiration porn, Keep the Change is cast almost entirely using actors and actresses on the autism spectrum, including the film's co-leads Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon, and avoids faux inspiration in favor of deep meaning, honest thoughts and feelings, rich authenticity and characters that feel like their living their truth, and in some ways my own truth, with their words and actions and emotions and wonderfully honest yet occasionally awkward dance toward human connection.
David (Brandon Polansky) is an upper-class charmer who is willing to spend whatever it takes in an effort to hide his high-functioning autism. When his mother (Carol Polansky) essentially forces him to attend a support group for individuals on the autism spectrum, David unexpectedly connects with Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), with whom he's assigned to purchase a birthday gift for a group member. Simultaneously attracted to Sarah yet uncomfortable with her own openness about her own autism, David struggles as Sarah challenges his desire to appear "normal." By Summer's end, David must choose between returning to his old way of living or acknowledging his needs and moving forward with the woman that he's grown to love.
Poignant yet never overly precious, Keep the Change picked up the Focus Features Best Film Award at the Columbia University Film Festival with Israel also picking up the Alumni Award for Best Film. After a tremendously successful festival run, the team behind Keep the Change is now working on turning the film into a full-length feature with a current Seed & Spark campaign going on in an effort to raise the film's $50,000 production budget. For more information on the Seed & Spark campaign, or to support it, visit the official page.
There are certain films where I'll openly confess that it becomes difficult to maintain the always desired critical objectivity. While I can easily write a critically viable review for Keep the Change, there's simply no denying that as an adult with serious disabilities myself that the film hits me in a way that few film writers could possibly experience.
Do I have autism? Nope. Does this film resonate? Absolutely.
Despite feeling a personal connection to the film, there's simply no denying that Israel has crafted an intelligent and emotionally resonant film that should be considered a "must see" for both individuals with disabilities and those who work with them, especially directly. I can't tell you how often, in my full-time capacity working for my state's agency that serves individuals with cognitive disabilities, that I've sat in meetings or read documentation where well-meaning yet incredibly misguided staff persons, case managers, and residential providers have spewed forth horribly misinformed opinions about disability and dating, disability and sexuality, and simply that ever present desire for intimacy that damn near every human being feels.
Again, I think Israel "gets it" and she's assembled a beautiful cast to bring it all to life. Polansky is remarkably convincing as a young man who desperately seeks "normal" connection, but has created a world where his family's wealth has allowed him to use financial means to distract those who might truly get close. Elisofon's Samantha is a joy, a wondrous and beautiful young woman who chooses to live within her limitations without being defined by them. Together? There's a beautiful chemistry between the two that comes alive in their words, their interactions and their gentle expressions of intimacy.
Justin Craig's original music is filled with life and spirit, while Ming Kai Leung's lensing is warm and intimate yet avoids focusing on disability in favor of focusing on the fullness of these characters. Israel's dialogue feels so honest and authentic that I often found myself wondering if Polansky and Elisofon had improvised. Regardless, it feels honest.
Keep the Change will, of course, cause some to reflect upon the recent film Where Hope Grows, a film with a central character played by an actor with Down Syndrome that played in limited nationwide release. While the comparison is understandable, the truth is that Keep the Change is even a little more refreshing because it honestly and openly addresses an area of life with disability so seldom captured on film and does so using actors who would know the truth.
Even better? It all works.
Keep the Change is available for viewing on Youtube via Film School Shorts, a production of KQED. Of course, you can also watch it here and you'll be better off for it. Once you're done watching Keep the Change, be sure to visit the Seed & Spark page and support the upcoming feature film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic