With ‘Keep the Change,’ seeing autism through a new film lens

Movies about people with neurological challenges form a robust subgenre: “I Am Sam,” “Awakenings,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “Rain Man” and plenty others.

These films vary in quality and tone, but they do have one thing in common: a neuro-typical Hollywood actor playing the lead part, thus offering an inherently glossy view of complex lives.

Rachel Israel took a look at these movies and decided to go another way.

The debut filmmaker had a friend with autism — Brandon Polansky, whom she met when they were in the same art class at Florida Atlantic University. She decided to build a romantic comedy around him.

“I like ‘Rain Man;’ I always have been very moved by it,” Israel said. “But it’s taken from the brother’s perspective. I wanted to make a human portrait that was from the [neuro-atypical] person’s perspective, fully flawed and unsanitized.

That impulse led to a short, “Keep the Change,” and then a feature by the same name — a New York-set rom-com that explores its autistic characters’ lives from an intimately first-person point of view. The film is groundbreaking in its own low-key, charmingly naturalist way, one reason it just won a series of top prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival.

As she sat in a New York office last week alongside Polansky and fellow star Samantha Elisofon, Israel described a process that’s as hard — or harder — than it sounds.

The filmmaker knew she wanted to cast Polansky. But for the female lead she tried scores of neuro-typical actors first, thinking that it might be easier if she had more experienced actors in other roles.

“Then at some point it became clear that wasn’t going to work — you’d have one actor who was not like the others. It would feel like a kind of exploitation,” she said.

Enter Elisofon, who had done some singing and acting and had high-functioning autism. Soon the rest of the cast was filled out with other first-time actors at various points on the autism spectrum. She would show their lives, feelings and, yes, struggles, all from the inside.

Israel crafted a script, coming up with fictional situations for her leads, whom she named David and Sarah. But she also talked to Polansky and Elisofon about their own lives and built many of those moments into the script, then allowed them to improvise during rehearsal and shooting.

“The huge fun in this process was all the work that enabled me to discover these gems of human beings,” said Israel, who has a master’s of fine arts from Columbia University. “Then the creative challenge was, can we capture that for the film?” She created what she calls “booby traps” — moments that she thought the actors would respond to with their own nuance and experience, in turn leading to spontaneous authenticity.

The years of development and preparation worked. The finished film has verisimilitude to burn; at times it can almost feel like a documentary.

Much of the setting of “Keep the Change” involves a support group, in which the neuro-atypical adults form friendships and rivalries as complex as those of any other social dynamic, and also pursue a range of interests, such as musical theater.

And of course at the center of the film is a romantic relationship. “Keep the Change” deals with some of life’s small painful moments for these characters, down to something as modern, and human, as online dating. Before David and Sarah meet, he often surfs dating websites, where he can be charismatic and direct and win a first date. But in person a series of tics and off-kilter comments can startle the women he’s with, leading to some truly heartbreaking scenes. The story is also based on Polansky’s own upper-class background and the complicated relationship he has with his parents.

In person, Polansky is quick with a joke — often with a pop-culture awareness, many of them politically incorrect. Elisofon has an exuberant, gregarious manner and is prone to certain go-to phrases, like hotsy-totsy and easy-peasy, which becomes the basis of a playful argument between David and Sarah in the movie.

“When I was with Brandon as David and Sarah, it was a mix and match,” said Elisofon, in a sun dress on a hot New York day. “Sometimes we just talked like we do. But sometimes I was very vulnerable because the character is so emotional.

“It wasn’t,” she said with a knowing smile, “so easy-peasy.”

Polansky, sitting across from her in dark sunglasses and an all-black ensemble he casually referred to as his Johnny Cash look, noted, “It was based on me, but I didn’t feel like I was playing myself,” he said. “Paul Rudd, not Shia LaBeouf.”

As “Change” seeks distribution, it reminds how different indie film looks in 2017: how documentary and narrative can blend, how a new set of sensitivities is giving rise to a fresh class of movies. But ultimately it reinforces that romantic comedies are happening all around us — they just don’t look like typical rom-coms.

“For a long time that I’ve known Brandon I haven’t thought about autism,” Israel said. “But when I saw what was happening in his life, with dating, as a willful and driven person, I realized that all these depictions of autism are of someone passive. And the people with autism, who have the most at stake, aren’t passive. I wanted to change that perception.”

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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